A new poll suggests a broad cross-section of Canadians see the oil and gas sector as vitally important to the national economy, an attitude that in turn appears to be driving up support for pipeline construction.
Almost nine out of 10 respondents to the Harris-Decima poll, 87 per cent, said they believe oil and gas development is economically important, while a clear majority — 53 per cent — ranked the sector as the most important in Canada.
The telephone poll of just over 1,000 respondents also found a majority of respondents in favour of the proposed west-to-east pipeline from Alberta to Atlantic Canada, as well as the Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast.
A slim plurality of respondents, meanwhile, said they oppose the Keystone XL pipeline to the southern United States.
The poll lands amid rancorous debates over the three high-profile pipeline proposals that have generated loud public opposition, including major protests and demonstrations south of the border.
Against such environmental criticism, the federal Conservative government has budgeted $25 million over the last two years to advertise the importance and environmental responsibility of Canada's resource sector, and talk of pipeline politics has dominated the governing agenda.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and individual producers such as Cenovus Energy have also been heavily advertising the merits of their industry.
"The more importance you place on the role that sector plays in the economy, the more likely you are to support the construction of any pipeline," pollster Doug Anderson of Harris-Decima said in an interview.
"But it's not true of everybody."
Women less pipeline receptive
Two out of three respondents were able to support at least one of the three pipeline options, said Anderson.
Women, however, appeared to be noticeably less receptive to pipeline construction even when they perceive an economic imperative for the industry.
"It suggests they're still considering other factors as well," said Anderson.
The survey, conducted Nov. 7-11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times in 20.
Curiously, high public perceptions of the oil and gas sector's supremacy aren't borne out by economic data.
Oil and gas is dwarfed by manufacturing in terms of employment and share of gross domestic product, and the sector's share of total taxable corporate income actually fell significantly between 2006 and 2011, the last year for which tax data is currently available.
Economist Andrew Leach at the University of Alberta's school of business has written convincingly that Canada is not the "petrostate" claimed by critics and advocates alike.
"The data tell you that the energy share and oil and gas share of Canada's GDP is dropping, that the growth in the energy sector has accounted for a much smaller share of Canada's economic growth than most people seem to imagine, and that the oil and gas share of total corporate taxes paid in Canada is smaller than its GDP share," Leach wrote recently in Maclean's magazine.
As a share of Canada's gross domestic product, the entire energy sector has actually fallen since 1997 to less than 10 per cent in 2013 from above 12 per cent, says Leach.
Still, rising public perceptions are good for the government's goal of getting Canadian energy resources to foreign markets.
"I think people understand why we are supportive in principle of the movement of our resources to tidewater," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said this week in a conference call from Paris, where he was promoting the Canadian energy sector.
"Increasingly, Canadians are becoming more knowledgeable about the importance of resource development to our economy. They understand, in a way that perhaps wasn't as widely known before, just how important resources are."
It's no surprise environmental campaigners are not impressed with the poll's findings.
"The oil industry and federal government are spending millions on advertising to tell us that oil is at the heart of our current economy, but Statistics Canada says oil and gas are only six per cent of GDP," energy researcher Keith Stewart of Greenpeace said in an email.
Greenpeace has used the Access to Information system to track government communications efforts on the oil and gas sector for years.
It found that on Sept. 29, 2011, the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) shared with senior Environment Canada officials polling data that showed the opinion-moving success of the association's Responsible Canadian Energy ads.
The analysis in the document suggested that CAPP's sustained advertising push "in the market for a significant length of time is helping create a cumulative impact on opinion."
Anderson Insight did the work for CAPP after employing Harris-Decima for the field research.
CAPP is not a client of Harris-Decima, Anderson said, nor was it at the time of the 2011 survey. The polling firm does, however, do survey work for the federal government, including Natural Resources Canada.