Canadians believe there is an urgent need to talk about balancing the economic potential of the energy sector with environmental protection and want the federal government to lead that conversation, a new poll suggests.

The survey by Nanos Research, which was commissioned by The Globe and Mail, comes as falling oil prices are predicted to siphon billions of dollars out of the Canadian economy, but also as debates about pipeline safety and the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming feed anxiety over resource development.

The results suggest Canadians are frustrated with the polarized arguments between energy companies and environmentalists, and that they want political leadership on this issue as the country enters an election year.

“Canadians know that the energy sector is very important to our future prosperity, and they also treasure the importance of the environment,” says Nik Nanos, the president of the research company. “And I think Canadians are ready for a frank discussion on how those two things can work together.”

The pollsters asked 1,000 Canadians who were randomly recruited by telephone between Dec. 18 and 22 to rank the importance of a national conversation about the country’s energy future and the environment. Nearly 53 per cent said the discussion was urgent, while another 33 per cent said it was somewhat urgent.

“It’s a pan-Canadian issue that engages everyone regardless of whether you are from Atlantic Canada or from British Columbia or Ontario or Quebec,” Mr. Nanos said. “And perhaps a pan-Canadian discussion would work better than pitting one province against another.”

Respondents were not asked for suggestions about how the talks might take place. But even though provinces are responsible for natural resources within their jurisdictions, 78 per cent said the federal government should lead the conversation.

As an election approaches next fall, Mr. Nanos said, Canadians will assess “which federal leader can share some type of vision for how things are going to work in the future between provinces, with Canada’s First Nations, and how can Canadaactually create prosperity within a responsible environmental framework.”

Nine out of 10 people surveyed agreed it was important that Canada and the United States tackle issues of energy and the environment co-operatively.

Half expressed some degree of support for allowing First Nations to block pipeline projects in their territories. But pipelines were also selected by 62 per cent as being the most environmentally responsible way to transport oil – far outdistancing trains, trucks or tankers.

Results of a survey of this size are expected to reflect the broad opinions of Canadians accurately within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

When China and the United States announced a deal last month to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed no willingness to follow suit. He has since said it would be “crazy economic policy” for Canada to limit oil and gas emissions at the current price of oil, which has fallen about 50 per cent in the past six months. On Tuesday, crude closed at $54.12 (U.S.) a barrel.

Without new action, Canada will miss by a wide margin the pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 that Mr. Harper made at a UN climate summit five years ago.

Christopher McCluskey, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, said in an e-mail that new measures for improving pipeline safety prove “we are working with governments, industry and First Nations to develop our resources responsibly and enhance Canada’s position as a stable, secure and reliable producer of energy.”

But Mr. Nanos said the survey results suggest a level of discomfort with government policies that have been weighted toward energy development and away from the environment. “If people were satisfied with that,” he said, “they wouldn’t want to have a discussion about it.”

David McLaughlin, a strategic adviser on sustainability in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo, helped organize a round table this fall on the polarization of arguments around sustainable development. It concluded, among other things, that there is currently no forum to bring the two sides together.

“What the poll definitely shows is that the issue of energy and the environment together, and of resource projects not going forward, and of pipelines, has truly seeped into people’s consciousness, that this is a real problem,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The public is not buying that there shouldn’t be some kind of balanced approach or integrated thinking about this.”

Megan Leslie, the environment critic for the federal New Democrats, said Canadians see the economic opportunities in the resource sector but want to ensure they are realized sustainably. “I don’t think most Canadians feel comfortable right now with resource development,” she said, “because they don’t feel that there are the right processes or regulations in place to ensure that it is done sustainably and that it isn’t hurting our environment.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 31 2014, 6:00 AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 31 2014, 2:13 PM EST