Angus Reid survey, April 28, 2018

Honey attracts more Canadians than vinegar. Someone should make a T-shirt.

A popular trope in Alberta is that the rest of Canada hates the province’s energy industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far more Canadians are supportive then critical. And for those that oppose, that’s their democratic right and they should be engaged – not vilified – because the evidence favours Alberta.

Alberta has always been prickly about criticism from outside its borders. And a certain segment of the populace has long been attracted to the idea of “Western separation” as a cure for the slights inflicted by a (supposedly) parasitic federal government and the Laurentian elite.

The current victim complex burbling along at full speed has deep roots in economic anxiety, according to pollster Janet Brown.

“The key thing is for the last couple of years, Albertans have been absolutely obsessed with the economy. You know, there’s been really serious economic concerns,” she told Energi News.

“For instance the proportion of people who are finding it hard to meet their monthly expenses. The economy comes up so strongly as the top concern in my focus groups.”

That anxiety won’t likely be eased much by encouraging job numbers in November: 23,700 more Albertans were working than the month before and the unemployment rate dropped a full point to 6.3 per cent, according to the ATB.

The anxiety isn’t about data, says Brown, it’s about people’s circumstances.

“Even if we’re technically out of a recession we’re mentally not out of that recession, right? Even if Albertans believe the positive economic statistics, nobody feels confident enough to just let your shoulders drop and say, ‘Oh, we dodged a bullet, we’re good. We can go back to regular things,'” she said, adding that “economic statistics are just the least effective way to change people’s minds.”

Will polling data help? Because surveys consistently show that the Rest of Canada supports oil and gas development, including building new pipelines.

As I’ve argued in other columns, that support is rooted in the “energy consensus” – Canadians understand a global energy transition is well underway, so if governments enact policy to support the transition to a low-carbon economy, then in turn voters will support new energy infrastructure projects.

Here’s another point Albertans should consider: the loud voices opposing them represent only a small percentage of Canadians.

“Worth noting is that the public debate, or at least the news coverage of it, may tend to leave the impression that most people have very strong views – however our results show that strong positive views tend to be more isolated to Albertans and Conservative voters, and strong negative views are less than 15% even in BC and Quebec,” wrote Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus Data, in the notes accompanying a September, 2017 survey of Canadian attitudes toward climate change and pipelines.

Here’s another observation from the Abacus survey: “Most Canadians (70%) believe that ‘pipelines play an essential role in delivering the energy we all use every day’ and an essential role in the economy of Canada (68%). People are far more likely to agree (63%) than disagree (22%) that pipelines deliver a huge amount of energy across Canada with few incidents.”

Abacus conducts two or three energy and climate polls a year that consistently reflect these views, which can also be found in the surveys of other mainstream public opinion firms.

Alberta, Canada loves you and the engine of your provincial economy.

Now that that’s out of the way, a couple of points anxious – and angry – Albertans may want to consider.

One, your opposition isn’t growing (it’s stuck around 20%), but supporters (58% approved of building new pipelines 2014 compared to 44% in 2017) are slipping into the neutral category.

The first priority for the Alberta energy trade associations – supported by the provincial government, the lead should be industry – should be to stop the slippage and shore up the supporters.

Is that more likely to happen with positive messaging about the de-carbonizing efforts of oil sands companies, for instance, or defensive and strident claims that Alberta oil is the cleanest, the most ethical produced on the planet?

Two, activists inside and outside Canada have every legal and moral right to oppose Alberta’s energy ambitions. Just because the industry generates huge economic benefits for the province and the rest of the country, that doesn’t confer special protection from critics.

The correct response to criticism is engagement and better arguments, not promises to fund litigation against critics or sic the Canada Revenue Agency on environmental groups.

Alberta is the only jurisdiction on the planet that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with, and the carbon-intensity of, its heavy crude oil.

The. Only. One.

What a great message for the rest of the Canada. Especially combined with other recent industry developments, such as new integrity management programs and leak detection technology that have significantly reduced pipeline releases.

Honey attracts more Canadians than vinegar. Someone should make a T-shirt.