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Support for Trans Mountain expansion drops under Jason Kenney's belligerent premiership

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Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

According to a well-known pollster, support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project has dropped in Canada outside the Prairies since this time last year.

In the same time frame, opposition to the multi-billion-dollar pipeline expansion project is growing at an even faster rate.

The Angus Reid Institute reported yesterday that its new public opinion survey suggests opposition in Canada to TMX has grown a substantial 11 per cent nationwide since June 2018.

That was just after Canada's Liberal federal government purchased the original Trans Mountain pipeline for about $4.5 billion, as many news reporters covering the poll results couldn't resist noting.

Still, if you're looking for a political explanation for the declining support for TMX in particular, and most likely for pipelines generally, that's almost certainly the wrong event to flag.

After all, even if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's determined effort to make the pipeline expansion a reality had turned Canadians against TMX, the conservative governments in the three Prairie provinces, the country's most resolutely anti-Trudeau region, have all done their level best to ensure he gets no credit for his hard work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

To a significant degree, this involves Conservative Party of Canada and provincial conservative politicians telling outright lies, a strategy that certainly seems to be working here in wild rose country judging by what one hears anecdotally. At any rate, according to the poll analysis, Canadians were split about half and half on whether Trudeau is doing too much or not enough for the pipeline, with not many thinking he's hit that Goldilocks spot where he's perceived to be getting it just right.

Regardless, as the pollster's news release put it, "Albertans are near-unanimously in support of the expansion," and "they are joined increasingly by their fellow Prairie residents." In other words, there's very little room for growth in support on the Prairies, which means it's falling faster everywhere else than the national numbers alone would suggest.

In British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, public opinion indeed appears to have turned against the pipeline. "Over the past 18 months, opposition has risen by 18 percentage points in Quebec (from 37 to 55 per cent), by 13 points in Ontario (from 23 to 36 per cent) and by 13 points in B.C. (from 28 to 41 per cent)," said the CBC's report of the poll.

The pollster explained what this means politically in its release: "Notably, this hardening of opposition has occurred in regions where the minority Liberal government must lean hardest for support."

Surely a more likely explanation for the timing of this trend than the date of Ottawa's purchase in May 2018 is that while former NDP premier Rachel Notley's much-maligned "social license" strategy was making progress on creating more positive perceptions about pipelines throughout Canada, UCP Premier Jason Kenney's vituperative campaign of war rooms, inquiries and rhetorical attacks on other regions is a flop.

As the old saying goes, you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And as is becoming obvious, while Notley's approach of taking measures to mitigate Alberta's outsized contribution of global climate change while pushing hard for the pipeline, so bitterly attacked as ineffective by the political right in the lead-up to last April's Alberta election, was winning friends in the rest of Canada, Kenney's angry bluster is driving them away.

Instead of friends, Alberta is making new "Kennemies" every day!

According to the pollster, Canadian support for TMX was moving toward 60 per cent by the time the UCP was elected in April 2019. Angus Reid Institute says it peaked at 58 per cent in June 2019, three months after the UCP took power and before the belligerence of the new government's approach began to really sink in.

Since then, Kenney and his supporters have been hard at work.

They've been trying to intimidate Canadians who oppose pipelines and want a more rapid transition to a low-carbon economy through the so-called inquiry in to "anti-Alberta energy campaigns," which journalist Tim Harper recently described as "the most private public inquiry" ever seen.

We're told inquiry commissioner Steve Allan is talking to witnesses. But who they are and what they're saying is a secret. Maybe they're embarrassed, since the whole inquiry was predicated on a dubious conspiracy theory about foreign-financed environmental campaigns trying to undermine Alberta's energy industry. Will we even be told who has talked to the "inquiry"?

Well, at least Allan is supposed to hand Energy Minister Sonya Savage an interim report "with advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options related to the inquiry" by Friday.

At the same time, the UCP government has been exposing its poor research and questionable ethics through the not-so-good work of the deceptively known Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., commonly referred to as the Alberta "energy war room."

Following two weeks of very public, often unintentionally hilarious blunders after it was launched in mid-December, the $30-million-per-annum war room seems to have all but disappeared, the dull puff pieces on its website attracting little attention. At least staff members don't seem to be trying to impersonate journalists any more.

Meanwhile, Kenney, his minsters and the UCP's paid trolls have been busy haranguing Canadians who disagree with them on social media, encouraging extremist Alberta separatist groups to put pressure on Ottawa, and continuing to fight federal efforts like the national carbon tax to mitigate the impact of expanded oilsands mining on the planet's environment.

Canadians outside Alberta, many of whom were willing to trust Notley, are clearly not impressed with her successor.

Even with the Prairies holding true to the shaky case for the TMX dream, support elsewhere seems certain to fall further, and opposition to become more confident and vocal, unless Kenney and the UCP change their tune.

I suppose TMX supporters can take comfort from the poll's finding that while support for pipelines may be shrinking, a relatively narrow 55-per-cent majority of Canadians still supports the project. However, 58 per cent of respondents also said the environment should be Ottawa's first priority, compared with 42 per cent who named the economy.

There's plenty more to ponder in this poll, conducted between January 21-23 using a randomized sample of 1,528 members of an online panel.

The next survey on the same topic may or may not confirm this conclusion, but it seems probable that with "social license" in the strategic trash can thanks to Kenney and the UCP, support for the TMX and other pipeline projects has nowhere to go but down.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr​

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