by David Akin
On Earth Day, of all days, environmental activists woke up Monday to some grim news.
Despite the pleas of Hollywood celebrities, despite protesters chaining themselves to the White House fence, despite the full-court PR blitz from professional campaigners like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, North Americans think the Keystone oil pipeline is a good idea.
For all the successes it has had in moving public opinion its way on other environmental issues, the green lobby has faceplanted on this one.
A new poll says “comfortable majorities” in both the U.S. and Canada favour approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
It’s just the latest in a long line of polls in the last few years which have shown strong support on both sides of the border for the controversial project.
Let’s look at the most recent data, collected by Canadian pollster Nik Nanos through his work as a public policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
First, Nanos asked about 1,000 people in each country if they had even heard about this pipeline, which would carry crude oil and bitumen from the Alberta oilsands south to refineries in Texas. Well, just about everyone in Canada – 92% — along with 75% of Americans surveyed had heard about it.
Nanos says the margin of error on his poll is 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Nanos then asked how people felt about the project. Though Hollywood heavyweights like Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah and Leonardo DiCaprio tried to demonize the pipeline, North Americans by and large shrugged off their concerns, Nanos found.
In Canada, 60% feel “positive” or “somewhat positive” about the project ,while 34% felt “negative” or “somewhat negative.” In the U.S., it was 70% “positive” and just 24% negative.
But, of course, Keystone is not yet a reality and won’t be until U.S. President Barack Obama approves the project. For Obama, it would be a major job-creator in a year in which his party, the Democrats, want to win some congressional races to take control of both houses in Congress.
If Obama is eyeing the polls, he’ll approve on that alone. Nanos found 74% of Americans support or somewhat support approval of Keystone vs. 21% who do not support. In Canada, 68% would agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assessment of Keystone as a “no-brainer” for approval vs. 28% who do not support approval.
The green lobby’s base case against Keystone has always been that it contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. It doesn’t matter that the U.S. State Department says there’s no truth to that statement; the green lobby has been betting that climate change would be a higher priority than jobs and energy security.
And, sure enough, Nanos found a majority of Canadians and Americans do agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be a high priority. But if it’s going to be one or the other, energy security – that’s what Keystone represents – trumps the environmental objective.
There’s lessons for both sides here in the broader pipeline debate.
Keystone has broad popular support because it’s seen as promoting energy security and independence.
The Northern Gateway pipeline is likely more problematic because the energy security narrative doesn’t fit with that project. Greenpeace and other campaigners may see success blocking Northern Gateway that they are not going to see on Keystone.
And what about new ideas like a west-to-east Canadian pipeline, an idea where both Conservatives and New Democrats in Ottawa might agree? The lesson from Nanos’ poll is that if pipelines or other proposals can be sold as helping promote North American energy security, those projects may be tough for the green lobby to block.
Categories: Contributor Columns