Martyn Brown: Pipeline polls are for fake news trolls

    1 of 6 2 of 6

      (Fair warning: this is a very long read.)

      Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media and fake news trolls are all falling over themselves to champion the latest Angus Reid Institute poll results as proof that a slim majority of Canadians supposedly now support the Kinder Morgan pipeline project.

      Solid evidence, they suggest, from Canada’s foremost self-described not-for-profit, “strictly non-partisan” public opinion research foundation.

      After all, Angus Reid is an unassailable institution of impeccable reputation.

      It stresses that neither it nor its poll data “is intended to explicitly communicate a public call to political action for the purposes of retaining, opposing or changing the law, policy or decision of any level of government in Canada…”

      And further, that “neither the work [it does], the materials [it produces], nor the public statements [it makes]… are for the purposes of inciting or organizing to put pressure on elected representatives or public officials to retain, oppose or change the law, policy or decision of any level of government in Canada...”

      In other words, the foundation’s motives are pure and entirely apolitical.

      It can’t help it if the media’s reporting of its public opinion research findings and if the politicians’ selective use of same tend to nevertheless have those unintentional effects on policymakers.

      As do any pollsters’ interpretation of their own “key findings”, of their necessarily selective choice of issues to canvass, of the structure of their survey questions and “script”, and of the questions they fail to ask. All of which are also critical to informing public opinion about the nature of public opinions.

      The gist of that latest poll is Justin Trudeau’s wet dream.

      It shows that public support for the Trans Mountain pipeline project appears to be growing across the country, despite serious public concerns about the risks it poses for ocean oil spills.

      You can read the detailed results by age and gender here, and for British Columbia here.

      Perhaps the only real shocker in those findings is that the opposition to that project remains as strong as it is, given the relentless and massive effort exerted by the establishment in trying to build public buy-in for that filthy turkey of a pipeline.

      The entire weight of the national media has been consistently and institutionally marshalled to sell that project to Canadians. Virtually all of the mainstream media is aligned to see that pipeline through, innately conflicted as they are as formal business partners, advertising dependents, and ideological corporate allies-in-arms with the agents of Big Oil.

      The overriding media narrative reflected in the latest poll questions and results is a testament to the pervasive power of fake news, disguised as its opposite.

      It is the false narrative that the federal government, Alberta, and Canada’s entire business community have all been peddling, in lockstep supplication to a tarsands industry. They all agree it must be grown at all costs, damn us all to hell, whatever the risks and costs.

      It is the dishonest narrative that patronizingly discounts Indigenous rights and title, provincial autonomy, and the need for serious climate action and risk-avoidant environmental protection.

      All of which are fundamentally incompatible with that “last hope” for a pipeline to tidewater. Which is aimed only at exporting greater volumes of Canada’s unrefined heavy crude at higher prices to more foreign markets, to yield higher profits for Big Oil, and to produce short-term economic and fiscal benefits to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and federal government coffers.

      From Day One, those who have been opposed to that project and to its fundamental vision for increased dependency on fossil-fueled growth have effectively been cast as “enemies” of Canada.

      “Led” by our duplicitous prime minister and by Alberta politicians all trying to do outdo each other in defending that absurd vision as “sustainable” development, the national media have dutifully carried that tattered banner forward as Canada’s flag to wave and advance at all costs.

      As such, Kinder Morgan has effectively “owned” Canada’s asserted “national interest” as its ultimate argument.

      It is in furtherance of that goal, we are told, that British Columbia is having that pipeline shoved down its throat, newly muscled by the Trudeau government, as a “core interest” of Canada.

      Greenpeace activists recently mocked Justin Trudeau outside Canada House in London, England.
      Greenpeace U.K.

      B.C.’s duly elected minority government has been cast as the villain in the piece, in no small measure because it has thus far been so reticent to play the part or fight back as need be on a political level.

      Essentially, it has been defined by the politicians and the mainstream media as an anti-Canadian “law breaker” that is standing in the way of “progress” and frustrating the national interest by dint of it actions.

      As if challenging federal government decisions and processes in court is a crime itself.

      As if seeking legal clarity from the courts on the nature of B.C.’s constitutional authority in regulating environmental protection is an unlawful act. One that is justifiably “punishable” by unlawful wine wars, by unspecified federal government “sanctions”, and by threatened oil embargoes that are expressly prohibited by Canada’s highest law.

      As if standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples in court—in defence of their constitutional rights and title, and in honouring Canada’s international commitments to their human rights and to the imperative for reconciliation—is somehow a “radical” affront to the fabric of Confederation and to the “rule of law”.

      Such is the context within which Angus Reid’s latest poll has been conducted, fresh off the first ministers’ meeting last Sunday wherein Horgan was told once again that his efforts at environmental protection in this pipeline debate are futile.

      Ottawa will see to that, assuming Kinder Morgan’s capital risk as necessary by deploying untold billions of taxpayers’ dollars as unconscionable public risk capital to finance that entity’s assured profits. In addition to whatever legislative and constitutional authority the federal government plans to pass and invoke to build that pipeline, come what may. 

      We have seen this movie before. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.

      To be sure, the Horgan administration has done little thus far to make its own case to Canadians. Save and except the premier’s periodic responses to his critics in Edmonton and Ottawa, in mostly asserting B.C.’s right to protect its coastal communities from oil spills

      Without a determined paid media countercampaign, or any semblance of a strategically determined political effort to explain his government’s purpose, legal rationale, and environmental imperatives, it is not surprising that Horgan’s NDP government is thus far losing the public relations contest.

      Or so it would seem from the latest public opinion research.

      It suggests that the prevailing narrative on the pipeline is the one being defined and successfully driven by its proponents. An entirely predictable outcome, without an emotionally compelling and factually convincing public information campaign to elevate public awareness and understanding of the many issues and risks that should be of material concern to all Canadians.

      John Horgan's NDP government has not countered the publicity campaign being mounted by Big Oil and the Alberta and federal governments, and their allies in the media.

      Horgan’s measured tone and commendable restraint in fighting back in the face of all forms of provocation are simply insufficient to win the political war, which he has allowed himself to have been defined as unreasonably starting and perpetuating.

      I am hoping that will change with Attorney General David Eby now being cast in the role of the premier’s top general in prosecuting B.C.’s case on Kinder Morgan.

      He is no pushover in any sense—politically, intellectually, or legalistically. He is a force to be reckoned with, who is not known for turning or turtling.

      Earnest and committed as Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman is, the guy who is most adept at bloodied combat is Eby. With him now leading the frontline fight for B.C., the tide may finally begin to turn in his government’s favour.

      Above all, the polls suggest that simply standing one’s ground is not a prescription for political success when the attacks are coming from all sides and from above—and even from within B.C. 

      As I have previously written, it is especially galling that public institutions that are technically entities of the B.C. government are using taxpayers’ money to sit as members of organizations like the Business Council of B.C., which are shills for B.C.’s oil and gas industry.

      It is outrageous that entities like public universities and various Crown corporations pay expensive annual membership dues to sit on the BCBC–including serving as members of its governing bodies—while it holds politically charged news conferences declaring its fundamental opposition to the B.C. government’s legal efforts to serve all B.C. citizens.

      That practice should be stopped, forthwith, by those entities, ideally, or if necessary, by provincial government policy.

      It is equally offensive that the B.C. Liberals are now standing with Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the federal government against B.C.’s efforts to guard against heavy oil spills by fully exercising the province’s constitutional jurisdiction to regulate in that regard.

      In my view, that lack of solidarity with the provincial government in safeguarding its constitutional authority is fundamentally anti–British Columbian, given the broader jurisdictional implications of the legal questions at issue.

      The counteroffensive, if there is to be one, will surely kick off when Eby files B.C.’s reference case, which he announced will be done by April 30.

      The Supreme of Canada’s new ruling is enormously important in that regard.

      It upheld the rights of provinces to regulate interprovincial trade within their borders in ways aimed at serving legitimate constitutionally allowable purposes, such as strengthening environmental protection.

      The key is that any such measures that might indirectly restrict the flow of goods cannot be actually aimed at restricting interprovincial trade as such, including by imposing costs on goods aimed at that purpose.

      Yet, B.C.’s reference is not about establishing a right to restrict the interprovincial trade of oil, per se.

      Rather, it is about ensuring that the flow of diluted bitumen through B.C. is done in a way to minimize oil spill risks and to ensure sufficient cleanup, remediation, and compensation safeguards are in place to facilitate the transportation of heavy oil in the interests of B.C.’s environment, economy, and communities.

      The constitutional question(s) he puts to the B.C. Court of Appeal, and his arguments to have them favourably answered, will demand a major public information effort. One that might also help to inform pollsters about the nature of B.C.’s claims and the courts in which they are being addressed.

      Indigenous people have led the fight against the Kinder Morgan pipeline project, but they're being supported by others of all ages.
      Protect the Inlet

      The Angus Reid poll inadvertently clouded public understanding on that score.

      In its summary of findings, it said this:

      “Under what circumstances should British Columbians opposing the project keep up the fight—or give in? The scenario that carries the most weight in that province would be a Supreme Court decision that rules B.C. does not have jurisdiction to block the pipeline.”

      Repeatedly, the pollsters referred to the impact that a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court might have on public opinion. Not in the questions they asked, as such, but in their characterization of their findings. An honest mistake, no doubt.

      In fact, neither the consolidated case that B.C. joined as an intervenor, still before the Federal Court of Appeal, nor the reference case B.C. will launch in the B.C. Court of Appeal, is before the “Supreme Court”.

      By which, presumably, the pollsters meant the Supreme Court of Canada.

      Nor was B.C.’s joint application with the City of Burnaby to appeal the National Energy Board ruling that allowed Kinder Morgan to bypass the latter’s bylaws during construction before the Supreme Court. It was dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal.

      Moreover, in none of those cases did, or will, B.C. argue that it has “jurisdiction to block the pipeline”.

      That is just wrong. Nevertheless, it is a charge often repeated by the media and pipeline advocates. Fake news, writ large, however borne of ignorance it might be.

      As always with polls, what was not in this one was at least as revealing and intriguing as what it sought to probe.

      Nowhere in that poll will you find any questions asked about some of the most important issues in the Kinder Morgan dispute.

      Not one question was asked about how the project impacts Aboriginal people’s constitutionally protected rights and title—perhaps the singularly most important question of all.

      It is the issue that most threatens Canada’s long-term relationship with its First Citizens. The issue that is giving our country a well-deserved black eye in the court of international opinion for the dishonest lip service successive governments have paid to that imperative.

      In due time, sadly, I fear, that fact will become clear enough. Canada’s “long, hot summer” is on the horizon, as Trudeau’s pipeline push comes to shove at Ground Zero. 

      No one should discount the serious potential for physical conflict that will create. Trudeau’s reckless disregard for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its requirement for “free, prior and informed consent” will cause irreparable damage to Indigenous relations.

      Yet this poll did not probe that issue.

      There was one question in the poll’s “key collateral issues” about “the importance of maintaining a positive relationship between the federal government and those First Nations that oppose the pipeline”.

      Webster defines “collateral” as “additional but subordinate; secondary.” Such is also the Trudeau government’s world view of Aboriginal rights in this pipeline fiasco.

      Surprise, surprise, only 43 percent of those surveyed who voted for the Conservatives in the last federal election indicated they placed “a great deal of weight” or “a fair amount of weight” on that “collateral” concern.

      The other 57 percent of those conservative voters placed “not much weight” or “no weight at all” on that imperative of maintaining a positive relationship with First Nations.

      How would people feel about the Kinder Morgan project, I wonder, if they were asked whether any heavy oil pipeline should be allowed to run straight through any First Nations’ unceded territory, with all the risks that would create for their drinking water supply?

      It is a key concern that is certainly not of collateral importance to the Cold Water First Nation, near Merritt. It is fighting that very risk in court. Who and how many know that, and what impact might that have on those people’s perceptions of the pipeline?

      Inquiring minds want to know.

      That poll did not have a single question about the impact of the Trans Mountain project and/or its related implications for tarsands development on climate change.

      Not a question was asked about how people might feel about that project if they only knew it stands to create more than three times the annual upstream carbon emissions (21 million tonnes) than the total amount of emissions (7 Mt) that all of Canada managed to reduce from 2013 to 2015.

      The poll asked nothing about people’s perceptions about that project’s devastating impacts on Canada’s carbon emission reduction targets, or on Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments.

      Apparently probing those relationships and concerns was not high on the priority list.

      Not a question was asked about how people might feel about paying higher carbon taxes to offset the added carbon emissions generated by that project.

      Not a question was asked about how British Columbians might feel about paying the higher gasoline prices that will result from doubling the existing pipeline’s tolling costs.

      A cost that one noted economist estimates will be about $100 million a year, or equivalent to 2.2 cents per litre. All to pay for a new pipeline that will ship unrefined diluted bitumen for export to foreign markets.

      Few British Columbians realize that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion will result in higher tolls, which will be tacked onto the price of gasoline at the pumps in B.C.
      Charlie Smith

      I wonder how people would feel about the fact that that pipeline will do absolutely nothing to enhance Canada’s rapidly diminishing refining capacity, or to enhance B.C.’s petroleum energy security.

      Do they know or care, I wonder, that the new tarsands pipeline will not do a thing to reduce B.C.’s imported volumes of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel?

      Are they concerned or aware that that new pipeline will do nothing to at least maximize the tarsands potential for job creation, because it won't refine more of that product at home? Or that it will be built to instead ship every new barrel of unrefined diluted bitumen abroad, to be refined by other countries with less rigorous environmental standards?

      How do Canadians really feel about the goal of creating a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic, in the heart of Metro Vancouver, to export triple the volume of tarsands oil to Asia, California, and elsewhere? At a time when the International Energy Agency is sounding the alarm bells that we must move faster in the opposite direction to stop the world from essentially cooking itself to death from fossil-fuel emissions?

      I would be interested in knowing how people feel about those issues, and how that might influence their view of the project.

      How would people feel about the cost taxpayers for cleanup costs of any serious spill? Or about the lack of basic scientific knowledge about the behaviour of diluted bitumen in seawater in B.C.’s wild weather?

      I would also be curious to know how British Columbians respond to the fact that the TMX project will see some 3.9-million barrels of toxic tarsands oil stored in 14 new holding tanks, at the ocean’s edge in Kinder Morgan’s expanded Westridge Marine Terminal.

      With the inevitability of a major earthquake sometime on B.C.’s southern earthquake zone, is that acceptable to most British Columbians? 

      Do they agree that the B.C. government should assert its constitutional jurisdiction to fully regulate those holding tanks or other facilities in regard to earthquake preparedness?

      Isn’t that yet another angle of regulatory authority that B.C. should be pursuing as part of its reference case?

      How do they feel about the lost tourism revenues, or about the economic damage that would be done to B.C.’s “super, natural” brand by any spill of serious consequence?

      How do they feel about the potential fire- and health-safety risks posed by a spill on Burnaby Mountain near SFU or elsewhere? Or the lack of emergency protection to respond to any serious event?

      How might they feel if they knew that, contrary to what Alberta premier Rachel Notley falsely asserted, there have been spills from double-hulled oil tankers? The recent Sanchi oil spill in the East China Sea puts the lie to her claim and puts the Kinder Morgan project in a very different light.

      None of those issues were included in the list of choices that asked people, “Which one of these potential risks or dangers would you say you personally are MOST concerned about?”

      Those risks did itemize “oil spills/tanker accidents, overall environmental/fossil fuels, pipeline leaks/breaches, tanker traffic detracting from natural beauty, pipeline construction impact, and none of these”. All in a general sense.

      The risk of oils spills/tanker accidents was deemed most important by British Columbians, at 52 percent.

      No surprise there, given how the climate impacts and other issues have been mostly ignored at every turn by the media. And I hazard to add, even by the Horgan administration that is thankfully doing what it can to maximize and clarify B.C.’s constitutional jurisdiction on oil spill protection.

      Instead, the poll asked a bunch of other questions that are reflective of the national narrative that the pipeline’s proponents have mostly shaped.

      As but one example, it wrongly asserted this:

      “There has been some debate about possible outcomes and consequences if the Horgan government continues to try to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.”

      No doubt you will be “shocked” to learn that a sizeable majority of B.C. respondents thought the province “should give in and allow the pipeline to be built” in the face of these scenarios, as quoted from the survey:

      • The federal government cancels infrastructure funds for improving transportation in Metro Vancouver.
      • The courts rule that B.C. does NOT have constitutional jurisdiction or authority to block the pipeline.
      • Businesses say they view B.C. as a poor investment climate, and look for opportunities elsewhere.
      • Alberta cuts way back on oil and gas exports to B.C., leading to significant price increases.

      Only a minority felt that B.C. should “stand firm in trying to block the pipeline” in those eventualities.

      Again, set aside the fact that, technically, B.C. is not at all trying to “block the pipeline”. Something it concedes it has no legal power to do and is not asking any court to authorize.

      What is more interesting to me is why the pollsters chose not to ask if B.C. should stand firm in trying to maximize, clarify, and protect its shared constitutional jurisdiction for environmental protection, including in regard to the risk of heavy oil spills.

      How do British Columbians and other Canadians feel about the legal challenge that environmental organizations, First Nations, and the B.C. government have advanced in attempting to correct the flaws in the National Energy Board review process?

      How do they feel about the process that Trudeau slammed as inadequate, vowed to fix, and assured that Kinder Morgan would be obliged to “redo”—before breaking his promise and approving that project in contempt of all those that corrupt process offended?

      Are most people even aware of that sorry history?

      We don’t know. No one was asked those questions.

      They were asked how much weight or importance they accorded to the following:

      • The economic boost for all of Canada associated with getting more of our oil to international markets.
      • The independence and expertise of Canada's regulatory and approval process.
      • The importance of maintaining Canada's and B.C.'s reputation as a place to invest.
      • The importance of maintaining a positive relationship between the federal government and those First Nations that oppose the pipeline.

      Each of those concerns got between 63 percent and 73 percent positive support.

      Trouble is, the way those choices were presented was almost as if they are benefits of the project as proposed.

      Of course most people agree with all of those things, if accepted at face value as tangible components or outcomes of the Kinder Morgan project.

      It is one thing to say you care about “independence and expertise of Canada’s regulatory and approval process” if you don’t know how badly compromised the NEB process was.

      But it would equally make most people furious, if they only had half a clue about the truth of what has happened in that regard, as opposed to the fake news the Trudeau government has spread in partnership with Big Oil and its Albertan handmaidens.

      Ditto for the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with First Nations opposing the pipeline. It the opposite of what is happening, yet my guess is, most voters are completely in the dark about that.

      In my experience with political opinion polls, any time you offer people a list of such “benefits” that are divorced from their scrutinized reality, you make an argument for your central question.

      In this case, fundamentally, that core question is the level of support that exists for a pipeline project that has been largely reduced to an imbalanced “spat” that pits the “national interest” in “sustainable development”, “job creation”, “maximizing the value of ‘our’ oil”, and “market diversification”, against a singular concern that B.C.’s minority NDP government is “recklessly pushing” about oil spill risks—mostly to assuage the three B.C. Green MLAs who are supposedly holding Canada’s economic development “hostage”.

      Crucial as that concern about oil spills is, it is only one among many that have been silenced and subordinated to the “benefits” of getting “our” oil to “market”.

      As if it is not really the wealthy tarsands companies’ oil, sold for a song by successive governments that have essentially forked over Canada’s nonrenewable resources to those private interests, many of which are foreign-owned or controlled.

      As if it is not really their rush to further pad their own pockets that is mostly driving this project. As if that ill-conceived enterprise is not also driving Canada to the brink of a constitutional and national unity calamity, which was nowhere canvassed in the poll.

      Yet, for all of that poll’s glaring omissions, it did offer some nuggets of note for hope to those of us opposed to the pipeline.

      They point to a generational divide. One that confirms millennials’ much deeper concern about the environment in contrast to the climate-be-damned aging boomers and seniors who mostly measure this project through the almighty lens of “wealth creation”.

      One question asked, “All things considered, would you say you support or oppose the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project?”

      Some 60 percent of B.C. respondents age 18 to 24 said they “strongly” or “moderately” opposed the project. The younger people are, the more strongly they oppose it, while the reverse is also true.

      Seventy-three percent of the people in that age bracket, and 62 percent of those 25 to 35 said that “the B.C. government is RIGHT to oppose the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.”

      Young people are far more worried about the pipeline's impact than older British Columbians.

      Perhaps most encouraging to me was this fact.

      In response to the assertion that “the federal government shouldn't be able to force a project on a province if it doesn't want it”, 62 percent of males aged 18 to 34 and a whopping 70 percent of females in that age bracket said they agreed.  

      Similarly, only 21 percent of the 18 to 24-year-old respondents agreed with the statement, “The people out there protesting don't represent the mainstream at all.” As compared to the 72 percent of the respondents over 65 who did agree with that contention, or the 67 percent of those aged 45 to 54 who also felt that way.

      Take a look at the mix of protesters that showed up by the thousands in marches. Or think of the many seniors who have been arrested for the first time in their lives, in registering their conscientious objection.

      Young people get it. The Trans Mountain pipeline protestors look exactly like all of us.

      They represent a remarkably broad and diverse demographic cross-section of society.

      Yet, somehow that has escaped the attention of all those who choose to see the Kinder Morgan protests through their distorted and jaded idea of what environmental protesters have been so often and so unfairly portrayed as looking like.

      They are portrayed as “radicals” and “counter-culture types”—probably all unemployed and on welfare. They are maligned as foreign-funded and controlled puppets who don’t give a damn about “working people” and resource communities.

      So the petro-pumping Neanderthals from Alberta and Saskatchewan would have all Canadians believe.

      Except that is so patently untrue.

      It is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has honestly cared to examine the varied and changing face of the growing social movement now being unleashed in Canada.

      A protest movement that demands so much better and more of Canada’s political leaders, especially in regard to the environment.

      I was encouraged by the response to the limited questions asked on that account.

      Seventy percent said they were concerned about “The risk of an oil spill or accident from a tanker carrying oil through the water of Metro Vancouver.”

      Sixty-eight percent said they were concerned about “The overall environmental impact of extracting and burning more fossil fuels.”

      Sixty-five percent said they were concerned about “The pipeline itself and the risks of major leaks or breaches on its 1,150 km path from Alberta to the BC coast in Burnaby/Vancouver". 

      Fifty-six percent said they were concerned about “The increased oil tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet in Metro Vancouver visually detracting from the natural beauty”.

      Fifty-four percent said they were concerned about “The environmental impact of constructing the second pipeline beside the existing one". 

      Yet incredibly, some 48 percent to 68 percent of the male respondents age 55 or older said they were not particularly concerned about any of those risks.

      That, despite the finding that 52 percent of all respondents were not confident “in the overall plans and procedures currently in place to Prevent an oil spill at sea”.

      All of it points to the need for the Horgan government to redouble its efforts to plough that fertile political ground with a vengeance.

      The opportunity is to there to elevate public awareness of those and other environmental, social, legal, and economic concerns and risks.

      They are all issues that have been largely overshadowed by the sheer weight and volume of pro-pipeline coverage that Big Oil’s institutional allies have driven with all their might. The poll merely mirrors that reality.

      Equally, the opportunity is there for Angus Reid or for other pollsters to explore this issue from a much broader policy palette and focus.

      It is an issue we poorly understand, one that this poll mostly suggests needs to be better researched and vastly better communicated, including by the Horgan government.

      Then again, maybe the establishment “powers that be” are too afraid of what they might find, in all of its unsettling glory that might help stop this uneconomic, environmentally asinine, and socially irresponsible project dead in its tracks.

      As they say, careful what you ask. It’s the answers you need to hear and fear the most that are bound to kill you, as they would surely kill this pipeline, if they were ever as widely understood as they should be.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at