Kurl: Trans Mountain – yes, there's a glimmer of light at the end of the pipeline

It must be a confounding reality show to people watching from east of the Rockies: protesters outside Vancouver being hauled away in their fight to stop the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion; B.C. Premier John Horgan remaining rock-hard in his resolve to keep up the legal battle in the face of the company’s ultimatum to walk away; Albertans erupting in fresh rounds of exasperation and threats; and Justin Trudeau jetting home from international summits to instead hold emergency summits in Ottawa - writes lfpress.com

Amidst all this, support for this fraught project’s completion has grown to majority territory in B.C.: Fifty-four per cent favour it.

What exactly is going on in the minds of British Columbians? New polling by the Angus Reid Institute gives us two critical answers – and a possible pathway to peace in the dispute over twinning a pipeline that would carry oil from Alberta to a terminus in Metro Vancouver.

First, for the majority of those living in Canada’s Pacific province, this conflict isn’t about adding a second pipeline parallel to one that has already been in the ground for decades. That’s a sideshow. The real sticking point is what happens once the diluted bitumen in those pipelines makes its way to open water – and the risks associated with a tanker accident or spill at sea.

This worries three-quarters of British Columbians – including more than half of those who support the project. Indeed, this is the fear west coasters express five time as much as any other concern associated with Kinder Morgan’s plans.

Compounding their anxiety are serious doubts about the quality of existing plans to prevent or respond to a spill on the water. The majority evince little confidence in current procedures. Twice as many (27 per cent) say they are “not confident at all” as say they’re “very confident” (14 per cent).

Second, while British Columbians have little appetite to put up with the threats – real and considered – from Alberta and the federal government (two-thirds say compromise and incentives are the way to turn the temperature down), they have even less appetite to be in a fight with the rest of the country on issues of jurisdiction. This reticence is enough to move them towards accepting the completion of the project.

Seven-in-10 say that if the courts rule that the NDP government in B.C. don’t have the authority to continue trying to block the project, John Horgan and his cabinet should give in and stop fighting. Among the majority that feels this way are more than one-third of those who say they are opposed to the project today.

Given these findings, the endgame begins to come into view. The Horgan government will bring a reference case to the B.C. Court of Appeal at the end of this month. A timely decision by the courts will provide clarity on jurisdiction. A ruling against the B.C. government’s plans will deflate much of the resolve to keep the fight going.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said repeatedly “this pipeline will be built.” But resolute words from politicians won’t make it happen. Threatening British Columbians won’t cow them into submission. And buying a stake in the project (something 56 per cent of Canadians say is a poor use of taxpayer funds) won’t allay concerns over the risk of a tanker breach in Burrard Inlet.

If words are to become action, the federal government must turn its attention, and commitment, to transparently, credibly and visibly demonstrating that its prevention and emergency spill response are good enough to build confidence and by extension, support for the plan. This approach won’t win over everyone: While some First Nations in B.C. support the program, others have vowed to fight no matter what. But as this political and legal struggle reaches its climax, proponents of this project would do well to turn down the rhetoric, and listen to the message those whose opinions can be moved are trying to communicate.

Shachi Kurlis Executive Director of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation. The poll, and more information, can be found at: angusreid.org

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