Why we mistrust the resource sector, and what needs to change

A new survey from the Canada West Foundation confirms what most of us probably already suspected: Many of us don’t trust the resource sector, with British Columbians being the least trusting overall.

The survey, generously shared with Resource Works, builds on the work the Canada West Foundation recently published around the resource sector’s challenges winning social licence.

As we’ve discussed before on this site, BC has a major problem discussing natural-resource issues. Our public discourse tends to feature committed pro- or anti-development spokespeople raging against each other, with little desire to find common ground. A big part of the problem is that we don’t know who to trust, and without trust, making big collective decisions is tremendously difficult. The results from this survey help explain where this distrust comes from and suggest ways we can start making things better.

(The survey was conducted by Ipsos. It involved a total of 3,038 participants in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. The margin of error is 1.8 percent for the complete sample and four percent at the provincial level. Only people who said they were knowledgeable about the sector were asked certain questions.)

Trust in the resource sector is low.

There’s no getting around the fact that resource industries are not our favourites. Respondents generally liked the agriculture sector, but forestry, mining and energy got low marks. Here’s how it looked when respondents were asked whether the four different resource industries were doing a good job or a bad job being trustworthy.

As you can see, only agriculture got got high marks on trustworthiness, while the energy sector sees the highest levels of distrust. The pollsters also asked whether respondents would speak out in support of an industry, or speak out against it. As you can see, the energy again appears to be facing serious challenges.

Maybe it’s because British Columbians are ardent environmentalist or just plain cynical, but we appear more likely than others to give resource companies a hard time. In the cases of forestry, mining and energy, BC had the highest proportion of people who said they’d speak out against the industries.

The environment is industry’s biggest stumbling block.

These results beg a lot of questions. What’s causing people to trust or not trust resource industries? And what can we do to make things better?

To help answer such questions, respondents were also asked to explain their levels of trust. Those who said they did trust the industry were asked why, and those who said they didn’t were asked why not. Here are the top reasons chosen for each industry:

Top reasons why people said they DO trust

Forestry

– Environmentally friendly / sustainable practices (24%)

– Good reforestation practices (21%)

– Good for the economy / creates jobs (13%)

– Government regulated (10%)

Mining

– Government regulated (20%)

– Environmentally friendly / sustainable practices (16%)

– Good for the economy / creates jobs (15%)

– Reputable / Heard good things about it (13%)

Energy

– Good for the economy / creates jobs (19%)

– Energy is a vital necessity (18%)

– Reputable / Heard good things about it (17%)

– Government regulated (17%)

Top reasons why people said the DO NOT trust

Forestry

– Bad for the environment / non-sustainable practices (28%)

– Motivated solely by financial gain / not socially responsible (22%)

– Deforestation / loss of trees / they do not get replaced (21%)

– Do not approve of clear cutting (20%)

Mining

– Bad for the environment / non-sustainable practices (40%)

– Motivated solely by financial gain / not socially responsible (26%)

– Unsafe / unhealthy practices (17%)

– Do not know enough about it (16%)

Energy

– Motivated solely by financial gain / not socially responsible (48%)

– Bad for the environment / non-sustainable practices (32%)

– Dishonest (14%)

– Pollution (13%)

These responses show a fairly clear division between those who focus on the resource sector’s economic impact and those who fear its environmental impact. We can see a similar trend in another portion of the survey where respondents were asked to identify where they thought each sector had done a good job or a bad job:

Top picks for doing a good job (Counting those responses that gave a score of 8 to 10 on a 10-point scale)

Forestry

– Contributing to the overall economy in Western Canada (30%)

– Providing benefits to communities (employment local investment, infrastructure, etc.) (23%)

– Job creation (21%)

– Protecting health and safety of communities  (19%)

– Is environmentally responsible (19%)

Mining

– Contributing to the overall economy in Western Canada (30%)

– Job creation (27%)

– Providing benefits to communities (employment local investment, infrastructure, etc.) (24%)

– Fair distribution of economic benefits, jobs and business opportunities in communities (17%)

– Uses training programs to maximize local employment opportunities (17%)

Energy

– Contributing to the overall economy in Western Canada (48%)

– Job creation (44%)

– Providing benefits to communities (employment local investment, infrastructure, etc.) (32%)

– Uses training programs to maximize local employment opportunities (22%)

– Fair distribution of economic benefits, jobs and business opportunities in communities (22%)

– Funds community infrastructure (22%)

Top picks for doing a bad job (Counting those responses that gave a score of 1 to 3 on a 10-point scale)

Forestry

– Habitat protection (30%)

– Consulting with Aboriginal peoples (29%)

– Limiting climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions (27%)

– Engaging local communities early in the planning process (26%)

Mining

– Limiting climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions (35%)

– Habitat protection (35%)

– Is environmentally responsible (34%)

– Minimizing environmental impact on local communities (33%)

Energy

– Limiting climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions (41%

– Habitat protection (40%)

– Minimizing environmental impact on local communities (36%)

– Is environmentally responsibly (36%)

As before, we see that the resource sector is widely respected for its contributions to the economy, but many are concerned about environmental performance. If you’re like me, this probably confirms what you already suspected. But it’s still troubling enough to be worth a bit of analysis.

What needs to change?

If there’s a sticking point for people somewhere between their economic dreams and environmental fears, what’s the solution? What can industry do to improve how it is perceived?

First of all, this survey helps confirm that people understand the economic impact of the resource sector. They get that resource industries contribute to jobs and economic development. But that’s not enough to make these industries trustworthy.

People are apparently not prepared to trade off environmental protection or community health in return for economic development. Those values are not for sale, as it were. As the Canada West Foundation concludes in their analysis, industry must improve its performance at the community level and also credibly communicate its achievements. I would argue that industry’s performance on global environmental issues is at least equally important

But if trust is already low, what will it take to change people’s attitudes? It’s possible that industry can do a better job making its case to the public, but if people are already suspicious this will be an uphill battle. I find it more likely that better and more visible government oversight and regulation will be far more effective at building public trust in the long run.

As the Canada West Foundation wrote in their earlier report on public acceptability: “The only route to a more stable environment for securing public support is one with appropriate policy, regulatory and institutional support.”

However it’s accomplished, I think all sides of BC resource debate can agree that we’d be better off working in a more trusting (and trustworthy) environment.

Peter Severinson is the Research Director for Resource Works, follow via Twitter @pseverinson