Opinion polls and public ‘support’ of the Keystone XL pipeline

Today, the Financial Post proclaimed that a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll indicates “overwhelming” support of the American people for the pending Keystone XL pipeline. That it does not.

Polling design greatly influences the nature and quality of responses. One of the most common ways in which responses are rendered unreliable is by framing a question in a way that misrepresents or omits key information that would significantly influence a respondent’s opinion. In this way, polls can be commissioned to produce justification for particular policies.

What makes the Financial Post’s interpretation of the poll incorrect is the way in which the question was presented:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?

What is particularly problematic about claiming public support for the pipeline based on this one poll question is that the public at large is relatively undereducated about the pipeline proposal to begin with – particularly with respect to the efficacy of arguments regarding the political, social, economic and environmental implications. This is partly the result of very aggressive PR, lobbying and election financing by the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, with the Koch brothers alone both directly and indirectly having spent millions of dollars on the 2012 election. In April 2013, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reported that despite their finding that fewer than half of respondents were following news about the Keystone XL pipeline, a majority still supported building it. This, despite the fact that according to the same poll, a large majority of respondents supported a U.S. effort to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs.

A critical piece of the puzzle is missing from the question posed in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll: the fact that the pipeline will not simply “carry oil from Canada to the United States”. It fails to mention the intention of refining and exporting the “oil”. What is described as oil is in fact crude bitumen, a thick, heavy and highly corrosive semi-solid substance. It differs from conventional oil in a number of important ways that, if respondents were aware of them, have the potential of producing different poll responses.

Because the question itself also offers oversimplified justifications for and against the pipeline, rather than simply asking the respondent’s opinion as it exists, it is suggestive. A respondent who is naturally unconcerned about environmental issues or even climate change is more likely to state that they support the pipeline especially when they are presented with an argument, whether well-founded or not, that it will create jobs and is intended to supply domestic markets. If on the other hand the poll followed up with a question asking whether respondents would be as supportive of the pipeline if they knew that the State Department’s environmental impact statement was authored by TransCanada (which is currently building the pipeline), the promises of job creation in comparable situations have not materialized and the refineries are strategically placed to service foreign markets, would respondents still indicate “overwhelming” support?

Figure into this picture also the magnitude and ubiquity of public resistance and the fact that over one million comments were registered voicing opposition to the pipeline. In the face of an unprecedented global issue – one that could affect every aspect of life on this planet – we can’t afford to rely on the dubious science of public opinion polls, which in ideal circumstances are not necessarily the greatest measure of public opinion. Far more important than trying to figure out what random people think is educating ourselves and discussing at length, from every angle, just what the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would really entail. Do we make this decision based on sheer popularity, or the merit of the arguments before us? That is the real question.

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First Nations and resource development: friends or enemies?

While indigenous groups are usually characterized as being anti-development, many First Nations in Canada are directly involved in resource development and see it as a way to improve their living conditions and become independent. Just because First Nations are critical of the federal government and corporations operating in remote areas, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily against resource exploitation in and of itself. Accordingly, the Financial Post recently ran a story entitled, First-ever aboriginal oil sands deal built on common interests.

Even First Nations that are suing the federal government over claims that they violated treaty rights through the implementation of controversial omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 – Frog Lake First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation, both located in northern Alberta – are themselves involved in extractive activities. Mikisew Energy Services describes itself as “a major participant in the resource development sector for the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries.” On its website, Frog Lake First Nations states that it has its own oil and gas drilling facilities.

Also in northern Alberta, the Horse Lake First Nation and Western Lakota Energy Services Inc. were given $1.35 million from the federal government to form an oil and gas partnership in 2005. Rather than increase funding for basic services and infrastructure, this is how the government hopes to prove that it is “committed to closing the unacceptable gap between First Nations people and other Canadians.” Former Horse Lake First Nation Chief Dion Horseman (who passed away last month – RIP) applauded the deal, saying, “Horse Lake continues to strive to diversify our economic base and we view the Western Lakota partnership as a key component to our future development. Further opportunities with Western Lakota and other entities should help secure the future for our band members.” The benefit to the community? A projected 15 direct and up to 77 indirect jobs for Horse Lake First Nation members. The band’s population totaled 938 in 2009, with 436 of those people living on reserve or Crown land.

Back in October 2012, Duncan’s First Nation Chief Don Testawich strongly criticized the Alberta government and Keyera over an oil spill and specifically, for failing to adequately inform the local communities of the impacts and failing to mitigate those impacts on the environment, on which those communities’ livelihoods depend. Testawich identified the problem as a “disregard that Alberta and the oil industry have for the environment and the rights of our community and other communities.” In particular, he cites a lack of adequate environmental legislation, which adopts a results-based approach. This is an important distinction. Greenpeace recently unearthed a letter from the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents the oil and gas industry) that asked the federal government to adjust its legislation to shift its focus from “preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.” In other words, let’s not take a preventative approach – let’s just wait until things happen and then respond to them “responsibly”.

Testawich is the owner and Corporate Director of Rig’s Oilfield Services Ltd., which is listed as a partner on the Duncan’s First Nation website.

In 2010, Duncan’s First Nation and Horse Lake First Nation won intervenor status from the Supreme Court of Canada. At issue was whether the corporations behind major oil and gas projects adequately consulted and accommodated their concerns before being granted approvals for resource development. Testawich explains, “Our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oil sands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Trans Canada Pipelines and Bruce Power are proposing massive projects that will fuel unsustainable oil sands growth. Development on this scale is making our treaty rights meaningless and threatens our traditional way of life.”

Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada. Their chief, Wallace Fox, has criticized Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for backing the Conservative government’s assimilationist aspirations. Instead, he throws his support behind Roseau River chief Terrance Nelson. In 2007, Nelson said, “It is time to quit being loyal Canadians, we don’t need the white man’s money. We need a share of our own wealth. There’s only two ways to deal with the white man. Either you pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.”

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Ruskin Dam, BC

In December 2012, a coalition of aboriginals, farmers and environmentalists joined forces to fight BC Hydro’s planned Site C dam on the Peace River, which would flood 3,000 hectares of prime farmland. The behemoth project would count as yet another in the northern BC region, which has already seen intense resource development. Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations responded, “Enough is enough. We need to slow down. It’s more important to maintain the integrity of what’s there than put it under water… all to expand the industrial footprint.”

Meanwhile, the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in BC evicted surveyors working on a natural gas pipeline project from their territory and have set up a roadblock. In a statement, spokesperson Freda Huson said, “The Unis’tot’en clan has been dead-set against all pipelines slated to cross through their territories, which include PTP (Pacific Trails Pipeline), Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and many others.”

Returning to the above mentioned Financial Post article, there are some fundamental questions to consider. The article states that the oil and gas partnership “fuels optimism that the seemingly incompatible values between aboriginals and the oil sands industry can be bridged when there is mutual benefit.”

INMconsentValues. I keep coming back to this word. It would be paternalistic to dictate to First Nations what their values are, either on a single community or collective basis. First Nations of today aren’t all going to look at these issues in the same way, and within communities we would naturally expect to see a diversity of opinion. Some First Nations don’t want extractive activities on their lands, period. Others are okay with it as long as there’s resource sharing, some control and/or fair compensation. Others still may see it as their only alternative to poverty within the current framework, or they may figure that since projects will be pushed through anyway, they might as well get their rightful slice of the pie. All of these approaches have been represented within the Idle No More movement, which broadly seeks both sovereignty and environmental integrity. You can’t take for granted that everyone at a rally will be against pipelines, mining or oil and gas exploration, even on aboriginal lands.

The largely ignored question is: How can we talk about protecting the environment while forging ahead in extracting, refining, transporting and finally burning fossil fuels? This contradiction is reflected in the letter authored by the Energy Framework Initiative, which prescribes “economic growth and job creation while continuing to ensure responsible environmental and social outcomes.”

One key observation… Non-aboriginal fossil fuel corporations aren’t advocating maintenance of the status quo. That’s not how they’ll thrive. They want economic growth. Economic growth that will spur a greater need for energy, and thus ensure a future market for their product. It’s a cyclical, self-perpetuating system that depends on a reliable source of capital. When they talk about growth, they’re not talking about workers, communities or public infrastructure. They’re talking about themselves.

Is there room for the much-touted aboriginal creed that we make every decision with the next seven generations in mind? Is resource extraction, and oil and gas development specifically, consistent with a worldview that holds that all life is sacred, that we are stewards of the land, only borrowing it and then passing it on? Is it in keeping with a philosophy according to which the very idea of owning land and exploiting resources for profit is tantamount to blasphemy and self-denial? Far from simply being a spiritual belief set, this worldview is one that sustained indigenous peoples prosperously and happily for thousands of years without causing significant damage to the environment. Is going the same route as the white man, albeit independently, nevertheless not an acceptance of the white man’s ideology, and therefore an internalized form of colonization?

Photograph by Peter Essick

Alberta Tar Sands (photograph by Peter Essick)

When it comes to fossil fuels, the issue goes beyond First Nations. We’re talking about basically every community in the world and future generations being affected by climate change in ways that could threaten their survival. No one group has a monopoly on environmental wisdom and activism. Many non-indigenous individuals and groups around the world actively oppose environmental destruction and pollution. We have a unique opportunity now in Canada to bring people of all backgrounds together. What seems clear is that human beings generally only turn to environmentally destructive practices when they are destitute or have become so separated from their natural environment or roots that they don’t understand their relationship with the environment and their impacts on it.

It’s important to note that most of the petroleum produced by the industry is exported to foreign markets. Viewed from that lens, how does fossil fuel production truly make any community – First Nations included – self-sufficient, economically stable and prosperous? These are after all non-renewable resources. Once that revenue source is tapped, where then will communities turn to generate income to sustain themselves, especially once they begin to improve their standard of living and their energy needs inevitably rise? When you are producing goods or services that other people consume, extracting only money from the process, there is no benefit in it other than to be able to buy the things you need… from corporations. True self-reliance would seem to entail producing what you need to survive yourself.

It’s difficult to understand how a community can maintain that it is following a traditional way of life while participating in extractive activities. There are, however, obvious reasons to believe that those income-generating activities are preferable to relying on inadequate government funding that is held over communities’ heads at any rate. Are some First Nations or chiefs being bought off? Are they selling out? Or are they just doing the best for their people given the circumstances?

Resource development on First Nations lands is not simply a question of whether natural resources are exploited in the first place, but who does it, how large the projects are and how they’re carried out. Generally, First Nations seek greater control over these resources and the opportunity to participate in decision-making so that impacts can be mitigated and the communities affected can be fairly compensated – at the very least. It’s one thing for First Nations to derive their revenue from controversial sources; it’s quite another that corporations are given a free pass by the government to exploit resources on First Nations lands, in clear violation of the Constitution.

Pipelines and tankers frequently leak and spill, affecting vulnerable traditional communities the most, so it’s incumbent upon people to speak out about them as Don Testawich has. But ecosystems aren’t contained within political, tribal or geographic borders, and the interrelated and cumulative impacts of projects, both big and small, native and non-native, are not very well understood, nor is there any mechanism in place for putting all of this into perspective. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized and ‘developed’; every community at some point is or will be faced with the decision to continue in this direction or to pursue alternatives, such as decolonization and degrowth. It’s clear that it’s in our best interests to make proactive decisions rather than to wait until there’s a proverbial knife to our throats, but is sustainable development possible with improvements to the economic and political systems, or is it just a pipe dream? Or is radical, fundamental change the only way to achieve prosperity and justice?

Anishnabe Prophecy of the 8th Fire

“At the time of the Seventh Fire, a new people will emerge. They will retrace the footsteps of their ancestors and will try to find those things which have been lost along the way. They will approach the elders in search of guidance. It will not be an easy task but if they are of good heart and pure intentioned they can prevail. Some elders will be sleeping and have nothing to say, others will say nothing out of fear.

The New generation must be fearless in their quest.

The Light Skinned race will be at a crossroads. If they continue down the road of Materialism, it will be their destruction and for all humanity as well. But if the Light Skinned Race chooses to join with the Natural People of this land on the Spiritual path then they will again have the chance to create a nation, the greatest spiritual nation ever to have existed.

Two other races will join these two races. Together, they will together light the 8th and final Fire an eternal fire of Peace, Harmony, Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

I leave you with a trailer for Fractured Land, a documentary that tells the story of a young Dene law student from northeastern BC who takes on Big Oil and Gas to protect his land and people:

‘Experts’ and environmental exclusion

Canadians should be paying close attention to their government now more than ever as it employs environmental rhetoric that is alarmingly arrogant and fundamentally undemocratic in nature. According to a Vancouver Sun interview, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated that the Canadian government will be limiting participation to members of the public who are “directly affected by major projects” and rejecting input from environmental groups deemed not to have specific expertise. There are several serious problems with this policy approach:

  • In order to make informed decisions, governments must consult with environmental professionals who have detailed and technical knowledge. But we know that academics and scientists are not necessarily subjective and it’s particularly unlikely that a government that has recently made very strong statements regarding environmental policy will select experts who aren’t sympathetic to its goals.
  • If the government is applying a harsh set of rules as to who can have a say, how likely are intervening parties to be taken seriously even if they’re affected or have substantial credentials?
  • What level of participation will the affected public and NGOs have with respect to projects that aren’t deemed major? Naturally, we’d expect even less scrutiny in those cases.
  • How do we know who’s objective? More importantly, what makes an expert an expert, whether it’s an individual or an organization? Who should decide what constitutes sufficient expertise? How can we ensure that vital choices are based on recommendations from experts who have demonstrated neutrality and an understanding of the concerns of all stakeholders, regardless of their financial clout or level of education?
  • How do we determine who judges which parties are “directly affected”? The people who are impacted, specially selected ‘experts’, lobbyists, investors or government officials? This is a key consideration because in the case of the oil and gas sector, for example, impacts aren’t contained; they extend throughout ecosystems and jurisdictions. Airborne particulates are carried vast distances through the atmosphere and settle in the soil and water. Polluted water spreads through watersheds. Contaminants are absorbed by vegetation and organisms ingested by animals (and in turn humans), resulting in the bioaccumulation of toxins. Greenhouse gas emissions have global impacts. Some chemicals, particularly those used in the mining and petroleum industries have very long half-lives so they don’t break down or get processed for many years.
  • Any given ecosystem, while it may affect a particular group more than others, is not the property of any one group. No one has the right to give ‘permission’ to pollute or deplete resources without the consultation of others who may be impacted even decades later. Without fair and transparent environmental assessments and the participation of a diversity of stakeholders (including non-experts and those ‘less’ affected by industrial projects), the parameters that we choose to determine what’s acceptable frame the magnitude of our results – positive and negative.
  • The Canadian government has never been very good at listening to Aboriginals – particularly the PCs – so why should we trust them now? Do I not have the right obligation – not only as a Canadian citizen but as a member of this planet to stand up for those factions of humanity whose voices are silenced and ignored? The officials we elect don’t have the right to tell us what rights we have. It’s for us to tell them.
  • A final but critical point: we are the environment’s sole defenders. We can’t afford to screw this up. Once resources are gone or damaged, there’s no turning back. We need to be absolutely certain that we’re acting in the best interests of all involved, which includes present and future generations, and that we can reasonably justify, mitigate and remedy risks and impacts. Because impacts on the environment are impacts on us. There’s a growing global movement to enshrine the legal rights of our planet (e.g. check out this article). Gone are the days when we could confidently assert our dominion over the earth. Bolivia has already passed laws to this effect and other proponents are forming new discourses around this issue that remind us that we can’t give our planet rights; we can only recognize them.