Studies suggest public unsure of energy industry benefit

Public-opinion research contracted by Ottawa suggests the pro-resource-development Conservative government has not yet convinced Canadians of the national benefits of the energy industry.

Public-opinion research contracted by Ottawa suggests the pro-resource-development Conservative government has not yet convinced Canadians of the national benefits of the energy industry.

Two polling companies conducted cross-country focus groups last fall — in addition to one large national poll — and reported a common theme: most Canadians just don’t see what’s in it for them.

“The perceived advantages of pipelines were economic — though few participants saw Canada as a whole benefiting from pipelines being built,” said a report from Environics posted publicly this week.

“Instead, they tended to assume that any benefits would mainly be going to individuals getting short- and medium-term jobs in pipeline construction or to oil companies as profits.”In a separate focus-group study of government advertising, Harris-Decima reported that “Participants’ comments suggest messaging that would further clarify how the resource sector benefits all Canadians may be of particular interest.”

Natural Resources Canada, which commissioned the two studies at a combined cost of almost $255,000, has spent more than $30 million on resource industry advertising over the last three years, with millions more budgeted this year. That’s in addition to national ad campaigns by the Canadian Association of Oil Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and various individual energy corporations.

The government is also starting a two-year, $24-million international campaign aimed at countering negative perceptions of Alberta’s oil sands.

“Canada has been, and continues to be, the target of intense and sustained public relations campaigns by domestic and international organizations, criticizing our domestic natural resource development policies and companies engaged in resource developments,” NRCan said in a request for proposal to advertising firms posted last October.

The plan was to include a “rapid response” element. As part of its continuing Responsible Resource Development ad campaign, the government commissioned focus groups last summer and fall to field test the response to its latest round of ads.

NRCan also commissioned a major poll and focus groups on general energy issues that was delivered in mid November. Both studies put extra weight on gauging public reaction in British Columbia, where pitched public relations battles are taking place over the proposed Northern Gateway project and the proposed tripling of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

“Most participants (in focus groups) have some vague, non-specific awareness of pipeline projects being considered in Canada,” Environics reported. “It was clearly not a major top-of-mind issue.”

However on the specific Northern Gateway project, Environics reported a “more emotional reaction” in British Columbia, where focus groups were concerned about environmental damage and “a notion that B.C. would be assuming all the risks while not receiving any of the revenue.”

There was also little awareness of a national strategy for managing natural resources and many people wanted more information on how governments hold the resource industry responsible for its activities.

As for the much-contested Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, Environics reported a collective shrug.

“Outside of Calgary, very few people thought it was personally relevant to them whether or not Keystone XL ever gets built.”

The paradox in the focus-group findings is that while the government’s preferred message doesn’t appear to be getting through, the messaging itself may be.

“In terms of a role the government of Canada may be playing, there was little or no awareness of any specific plan, program or initiative the federal government was overseeing related to ’managing’ natural resources in Canada,” according to Environics.

“The most common perception was that the government of Canada was promoting oil and gas resources.”

— with files from Alexander Panetta in Washington

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