“As much as some pro-pipeline advocates want to hear politicians going to battle with opponents, voters would probably prefer that their politicians reduce rather than increase the drama.” – Anderson

Sometime in the near future, Rachel Notley will embark on another “hearts and minds” tour through Canada, including plenty of time in British Columbia, we hope, and a new survey from Abacus Data provides interesting insights into what she should talk about, including the number one issue that makes even pipeline supporters nervous: the risk of a catastrophic spill from the pipeline or oil tankers.

“Looking deeper under the surface of these reactions reveals that many people feel torn and exhibit mixed feelings, feeling that arguments both in favour and opposed to the project are persuasive,” pollsters Bruce Anderson and David Coletto said in a release.

“This is far from entrenched polarization, and instead reveals a population which understands that there is no easy choice to be made when it comes to this project.”

As a British Columbia resident, I hear this ambivalence all the time from folks who nominally support the 525,000 b/d twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast. They’re looking for a persuasive argument that will resolve their fears of potential environmental disaster with their desire to support the economy and Alberta.

Abacus tested eight arguments (4 supportive/4 opposing) and asked respondents if they were persuaded by them or not.

Most of the 900 online respondents (63%) were persuaded that the pipeline will greatly increase the risk if a diluted bitumen spill.

That percentage rises to 69 per cent among those who “lean or are undecided,” suggesting that the soft opinion Notley hopes to influence during her tour is open to information and argument demonstrating the likelihood of a spill by pipeline or from oil tankers is very, very small.

If the Alberta NDP premier wants to really make a difference to the debate, she should speak directly to NDP voters, many of whom will know her from her long involvement in party politics, including a stint in Victoria early in her career when she worked alongside BC Premier John Horgan.

The Abacus poll shows that between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of BC NDP supporters find arguments in favour of the pipeline persuasive.

Those numbers belie comments by Horgan and BC eco-activist opponents, who like to claim much higher support.

Notley should also do her best to help shore up support among BC Liberals, of which 32 per cent to 50 per cent find arguments against the pipeline persuasive (46% worry that Trans Mountain Expansion will greatly increase the risk of a spill).

Federal Liberals are even more worried about a spill, to the tune of 61 per cent.

Another message that resonates (61%) with BC is that “all provinces benefit from Canada’s oil and would benefit from this project going ahead.” The argument is especially persuasive (65%) among soft and undecided respondents.

As an illustration of how split British Columbians are on the Kinder Morgan project, 46 per cent were persuaded by the argument that “the risks for BC are great, but there is no economic benefit for BC”, while 56 per cent were persuaded by the argument that “it’s a bad precedent for one province to be able to stop something so important to the economy of a neighboring province.”

Notley should also note that BC residents are conflicted about the role of the pipeline in the battle against climate change since her government brought in one of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reduction policies in late 2015 (the Climate Leadership Plan, which includes measures to significantly lower oil sands emissions).

Almost six in 10 (59%) were persuaded that “allowing this pipeline to go ahead means encouraging the use of fossil fuels which contribute to climate change,” but five in 10 (51%)  think that “stopping this pipeline could end up polarizing the country and leading to a reduction in the commitment to fight climate change.”

When Notley announced her “hearts and minds” tour a few weeks ago, she hinted that her ministers would be part of the plan (Environment Minister Shannon Phillips was on a Surrey radio station this past week talking up Alberta climate initiatives) and there would be some type of communications plan.

Anderson has some advice for all Albertans that Notley should heed: “As much as some pro-pipeline advocates want to hear politicians going to battle with opponents, voters would probably prefer that their politicians reduce rather than increase the drama.

“Soft opponents of this project are probably more likely to accept it’s approval when they hear that those making the decision have listened to and paid respect to the counter-arguments, especially those having to do with spills and climate change.”

Sure, banning BC wine and threatening to turn off oil shipments to the West Coast is good politics in Alberta (political gossip suggests Notley’s support has risen significantly of late), but tough talk won’t do a damn bit of good in shoring up support for the much needed pipeline (the widening differential between Alberta prices and West Texas Intermediate is hurting producers and the provincial treasury alike).

The Abacus survey shows that almost half (45%) of British Columbians support or lean toward supporting the project, 35 per cent oppose or lean toward opposing it, and 20 per cent are neutral.

Keep in mind those numbers fly in the face of years of ferocious opposition from coastal First Nations and Vancouver-based eco-activists.

Imagine what might be possible if the well-spoken Notley, her ministers, and a robust communications program actually engaged British Columbians and converted some of the neutral and soft opposition by providing credible and reassuring explanations about the low risk of spills and and other concerns identified in this survey?