Politicians, corporations falling short in major project promotion

Trans Mountain pipeline expansion | Kinder Morgan

The federal government’s approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal last week, handing a victory to First Nations and environmental groups.

The court’s decision was unanimous. And, aside from a scathing review of the National Energy Board’s review of the proposal, the judges made one thing abundantly clear: Ottawa did not engage in “meaningful consultations” with First Nations before attempting to “get to yes.”

Back in May, after the federal government expressed its willingness to “indemnify the Trans Mountain expansion against unnecessary delays,” but before Ottawa announced that it was buying the existing pipeline and its expansion project for $4.5 billion, British Columbians appeared uneasy.

On the one hand, most residents (57 per cent) thought Ottawa made the wrong decision in announcing it would use taxpayer money to indemnify Kinder Morgan’s backers for any financial loss. Three-in-four (76 per cent) acknowledged feeling uncomfortable with the notion of the federal government using taxpayer money to subsidize a foreign company.

The way in which projects are reviewed, and the avenues that a community has to provide input, have changed drastically over the past two decades. The days of assembling chairs in rows and allowing speakers to grab a microphone are nearly over. Technology, whether through citizen engagement or polling, has allowed residents to have their say in more productive ways.

In August, before the Federal Court of Appeal rendered its verdict on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Research Co. asked British Columbians if actions taken by a specific venture, facility proponent or project developer would influence their support.

Only two actions would sway at least three-in-five British Columbians to be more supportive of a project: job creation in their community (63 per cent) and economic benefits to their community, in the form of sponsorships, infrastructure and investments (60 per cent). If these two actions are present in a proposal – and explained in a transparent and modest fashion – they would both provide reassurance to supportive British Columbians and soften opposition.

Some lower-ranked actions that could move the needle are early engagement in project design (46 per cent), regular updates from the proponent throughout the project (45 per cent), local representation from the company in the community to answer questions (43 per cent), and endorsements from non-profit groups and other community-based organizations (32 per cent).

The two lowest-ranked actions have to do with the delivery of communications and the involvement of public officials. Only 28 per cent of British Columbians say receiving a letter from the company to their home address informing them of the project would sway their views.

Even fewer residents (18 per cent) say the endorsement of a project from government representatives would make them more supportive. It turns out that politicians are the least successful “salespeople” of projects. They are ranked significantly lower than non-profit groups, and are less effective than a letter from the proponents.

In the case of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, there was a need for more transparency on the part of the original proponent on job creation and economic benefits. This is a message that would have moved the needle, and precisely one of the elements of the proposal that was chastised by the Federal Court of Appeal.

When the Canadian prime minister and Alberta’s premier became involved in the discussions, the message shifted from tentativeness to inevitability. Press conferences where both politicians repeated the message of “this pipeline will be built” served only to exacerbate opponents. They were followed by calls to abandon the legal process. This was not the ideal way to engage with British Columbians at large and with First Nations in particular.

This process is not over, and there may be more time in court ahead for proponents and opponents. However, the lesson that companies and politicians can learn from this recent experience is simple. Drop the platitudes, be ready to have an open discussion about benefits and drawbacks, and do not act in a way that makes you look boastful in the eyes of voters and taxpayers. The country is not “closed for business” as some commentators would have us believe. A federal court is asking corporations and governments to do better. And they should.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co. He writes a column exclusive to Glacier Media newspapers. This column is published every Tuesday and Thursday.

Would any of the following actions taken by a specific venture, facility proponent or project developer influence your support for it?


By the numbers:

Job creation in the community – 63%

Economic benefits to my community (community sponsorships, infrastructure, and investments) – 60%

Early engagement where you have a say in project design – 46%

Regular updates from the proponent throughout the project – 45%

Local representation from the company in my community (to answer questions, for instance) – 43%

Endorsements from non-profit groups and/or other community-based organizations – 34%

Receiving a letter from the company to my home address informing me of the project – 28%

Endorsement from government representatives – 18%

None of these – 13%