Pipeline split endures: survey

British Columbians remain divided on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, but support would jump if the project met the provincial government’s five conditions, according to a new poll.

BC Chamber president and CEO John Winter

British Columbians remain divided on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, but support would jump if the project met the provincial government’s five conditions, according to a new poll.

A telephone survey by Maple Leaf Strategies, conducted on behalf of the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce, found that 47% of respondents either strongly or somewhat support the pipeline, compared with 44% who either somewhat or strongly oppose it. The rest said they don’t know.

“The response we’ve gotten in this poll would suggest more people are now comfortable making some kind of decision; there was an awful lot of undecideds in the past,” Chamber president and CEO John Winter said.

The results of this latest survey come off the heels of a November poll by Insights West, which saw support for the northern Alberta-to-Kitimat pipeline and terminal growing. In that survey, opposition still outnumbered support 47% to 42%. That differs from an August 2012 poll by Abacus Data which found 56% of those surveyed were opposed to Northern Gateway compared with 24% who supported the project.

Winter credits the uptick in support for Northern Gateway to the provincial governments of B.C. and Alberta announcing last month that they would continue to work together to find a way for Northern Gateway and other pipeline projects to meet the five conditions Christy Clark’s government has set out.

“People became more comfortable that the project could go ahead and will be done in a way that would mitigate the risks as much as possible,” Winter said.

Fort St. James Sustainability Group organizer Brenda Gouglas said the results of the recent polls belie what she’s seeing on the ground. She pointed to rallies held around the province on November 16, as well as online petitions, as proof opposition is still strong.

“There were new faces out there that I hadn’t talked to before,” she said. “I’m seeing new people, more people.”

According to the survey, support for Northern Gateway increases to 57% if the federal Joint Review Panel offers a favourable recommendation later this month and jumps again to 63% if the B.C. government determines its five conditions have been met. As support increases, the number of those opposed and undecided decreases.

“There’s a strong notion being perpetuated by some of the opponents that the B.C. public is opposed to this and that's clearly not the case,” Winter said.

Winter said support is strongest in the interior and the north, but regional figures won’t be released publicly because of the larger margin of error. Gouglas said releasing regional data would paint a better picture of where support and opposition sits.

Northern Gateway spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said the company is seeing greater openness to the project as staff, including project leader Janet Holder, travel around the province.

“British Columbians are telling us they want a strong economy and understand the role a project like Northern Gateway can play in that,” he said. “But obviously, we’re also hearing very clearly that economic development can’t come at the expense of the environment.”

Gouglas said the broad nature of the questions asked in the most recent survey were too wide-open and focused on economic benefits. She said she would have been interested to see a question which included a preamble about concerns in marine spill response preparedness raised in a recent report from Nuka Research and commissioned by the provincial government.

“Polls are easily designed to get a desired outcome and it depends on who you ask and what you ask,” she said.

Gouglas also noted that a majority of survey respondents said their largest concern about the pipeline was the effects of a possible spill, with 39% saying a pipeline spill was their top concern and 29% saying a tanker spill topped their list.

“In [the Chamber’s] press release there was no mention whatsoever that 68% of those surveyed had spills as their top two concerns,” she said. “In that news release, they focused on the economy, which really is what Mr. Winter gets paid for.”

Winter said that although the Chamber does support Northern Gateway so long as it gets a positive recommendation from the federal Joint Review Panel, the survey itself was done independently and professionally.

It surveyed a random sampling of 1,050 British Columbians by live telephone interview and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3%, 19 times out 20.