Approving B.C. LNG project likely to alienate a small – but important – segment of Trudeau base

Approving B.C. LNG project likely to alienate a small – but important – segment of Trudeau base

By Ian Holliday, Research Associate

September 30, 2016 – The federal government’s approval – with 190 conditions – of an $11.4-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas on British Columbia’s northern coast raises a number of questions about the Trudeau government’s energy and climate change policies, and what the public’s reaction to them will be.

Almost immediately, the decision to approve Pacific NorthWest LNG was met with heavy criticism from environmentalists and First Nations, but past Angus Reid Institute polling has suggested that opposition to other energy projects – loud though it may be – is currently a minority view in Canada.

Consider the last large-scale energy project to receive conditional approval from the federal government: Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion. When the Institute asked whether the National Energy Board made the right decision in approving that project – with 157 conditions – Canadians’ responses looked like this:

Angus Reid Institute

While fewer than half said the NEB made the right decision, just one-quarter (24%) said it was the wrong one.

It’s possible, of course, that Canadians are more hardened in their opposition to Pacific Northwest LNG than they were to TransMountain, but there are reasons to believe that’s unlikely.

For starters, Canadians generally feel less concerned about the risks associated with shipping LNG than they do about shipping crude oil. In April, a majority (58%) told the Angus Reid Institute they support transporting LNG in Canadian waters. Compare that with the fewer than half who said they support an increase in oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s South Coast:

Angus Reid Institute

There’s also the possibility that the 190 conditions – including a lower-than-previously-announced cap on emissions – put on the Pacific NorthWest LNG project will placate some of the opposition to the terminal.

That said, if reaction to the conditions placed on the Kinder Morgan approval is in any indication, there’s probably a limit to how much such restrictions will sway public opinion in this case.

When the NEB approved TransMountain, almost half of all Canadians (49%) said the conditions would be sufficient to address concerns about the project. That may seem like a lot, but closer inspection shows that relatively few respondents actually changed their minds on this question. Those who said the NEB made the right decision in approving the pipeline mostly said the conditions were enough, while those who said it made the wrong decision mostly said they were insufficient:


What this suggests is that the opponents of energy projects in Canada – though almost certainly a minority – are hardened in their opinions.

Approving the LNG terminal near Prince Rupert also pose challenges to the federal government on two fronts: First, it casts doubt over the government’s ability to deliver on the national climate change strategy it promised during the 2015 election campaign.

Opponents of energy projects like TransMountain and Pacific NorthWest LNG argue that extracting and exporting more fossil fuels will only make it more difficult for Canada to meet new targets for reducing carbon emissions, assuming the government actually sets them.

Canada’s current goal – announced by the Harper government in May 2015 – is to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Canada is not currently on track to meet that target, let alone the more ambitious goals the Trudeau government has promised to work with the provinces to set. Perhaps this is why a March ARI poll found relatively few Canadians anticipate the country will actually meet its emissions-reduction goals:

Angus Reid Institute

Second, the extraordinary popularity the Trudeau government has enjoyed for most of its first year in power is attributable in large part to left-leaning voters – those who voted for Trudeau’s Liberals, as well as those who voted for the New Democratic Party in 2015 – remaining united in their favourable impression of the PM and his government.

If climate-change-minded pipeline/LNG opponents come to view the government’s approval of energy projects as a betrayal of their trust – as some already seem to be doing – public opinion on Trudeau and his government is likely to grow more sour, costing the Liberals some of the political capital they’ve accumulated over the last year.

As several analysts have suggested, that may well be Trudeau’s strategy: To sacrifice some points off his approval rating by greenlighting energy projects in B.C. and Alberta, in order to secure the support of premiers Christy Clark and Rachel Notley for his government’s national climate change strategy, all while avoiding (or at least postponing) a conflict with Quebec over the proposed Energy East pipeline.

Whether this strategy pays off in the long term remains to be seen.

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