Here's what Canadians think of the oil sands

Athabasca oil sands, Alberta

Athabasca oil sands, Alberta | Creative Commons image by Shell

The oil sands industry is possibly the most controversial subject in Canada today. Companies trying to develop, transport and sell Alberta's crude have faced fierce opposition from environmental and aboriginal groups. Efforts to transport the oil to US markets through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have been stalled by the US government, activists and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, petroleum producers and the Canadian government have been mounting a PR campaign – including the Federal government's $24 million ad campaign in Washington – to build a better reputation for the billion dollar industry.

A recent poll by Ipsos Reid Public Affairs – on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – gives some insight into what Canadians think of the industry which is expected to provide about $79 billion in government revenue over the next two decades.

Benefits of oil sands

The survey shows that the public is highly divided on one of the most fundamental questions on oil sands. By a slim majority, Canadians agree that the "overall, the benefits of development of the oil sands in Canada outweigh the negatives."

But despite frequent and widely-publicized anti-oil sands activism, 80% of people surveyed support "the use of pipelines to transport oil sands crude from Alberta to refineries in Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada."

Similarly, 75% agree that "Canadian oil refineries should make it a priority to use Canadian oil before using oil imported from other countries, even if it means transporting oil from Western Canada across the country to the refineries."

This should come as good news to Enbridge, the company that currently operates the 639-kilometre Line 9B pipeline in Western Canada and is trying to get government approval to reverse its flow so that it can transport cheap crude from Alberta to Montreal.

Use of pipelines

The Keystone XL pipeline – which would allow oil sands to flow from Alberta to the southern US – is not explicitly mentioned but the survey reveals that 57% of respondents support "the use of pipelines in transporting crude oil from Alberta refineries in Texas."

Although the great majority of those surveyed agree that the oil sands industry contributes largely to the Canadian economy, they are not so convinced when it comes to safety and the environment.

Seventy-four percent believe that "the oil sands could be doing more to protect the environment." And while close to one-third believe "crude oil transportation has proven to be unsafe and should be stopped," just about two-thirds think that "it is possible to produce oil sands while at the same time managing the environmental impacts."

When survey participants were asked to grade the oil sands industry in terms of its contribution to the economy, most gave it a grade between A and B. But when it came to protecting the environment, nearly half gave it a grade below C.

Developing the oil sands while managing the environment

The industry's environmental record has come under fire recently, particularly since a CBC news investigation showed that the rate of spills and leaks from Canada's federally-regulated pipelines has doubled since 2000.

The most encouraging survey result for the industry is probably the fact that 61% agree with the statement that "the debate on whether the oil sands should exist is over and we should move on to how the oil sands should be developed."