A series of public opinion polls on the shipment of oil released under Access to Information suggest the federal government is in a tight corner when it comes to convincing Canadians that developing resources is safe for the environment.

On the one hand, almost half of Canadians polled think pipelines can transport oil safely.

But on the other, people are increasingly wary of the environmental risks of shipping or exporting oil using any kind of infrastructure — pipelines, tankers or rail.

And Canadians are split over whether the need for energy outweighs the environmental risks of developing Alberta's oilsands.

"It really does give some indication that Canadians are really divided on the future of the industry," said Andre Plourde, who is an expert in energy and environmental policy and dean of Carleton University's faculty of public affairs.

The Harper government sees resource development as a major driver of the Canadian economy. But it's increasingly running into public protests against new infrastructure, such as pipelines and tankers, to get those resources to new markets.

Plourde said the polls suggest why the federal government is facing such resistance.

"It's a hard card to play if half of Canadians start off the debate by saying the environmental footprint is too large even from the get-go," Plourde said in an interview with CBC News. "It's a difficult  place to be at."

Polls for departments, industry

The documents released to CBC are an aggregate of polls conducted for Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the petroleum industry and by the CROP polling company from 2011 to 2013.

They are included in an internal document called Public Opinion on Oil produced by Environment Canada in November 2013.

Some highlights include:

  • 51 per cent of 2,070 Canadians think developing the oilsands is worth the environmental risk, while 49 per cent do not, according to an online survey for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in October, 2013.
  • 64 per cent of 2,000 Canadians polled think the government is doing a "somewhat poor" or "very poor" job of balancing economic growth and environmental protection, according to an online survey of 2,000 Canadians by CROP in September, 2013.
  • Fewer Canadians see new oil and gas markets as important, with support dipping to 52 per cent in late  2013 from 60 per cent in 2011, based on telephone surveys for Environment Canada of 2,000 to 3,000 Canadians.
  • Fewer than three out of 10 (28 per cent) Canadians think the government can adequately respond to a significant oil spill on land, and even fewer (23 per cent) think it can adequately respond to a big oil spill on water, according to telephone surveys of 3,004 Canadians conducted for NRCAN in October and November, 2013.
  • One out of five respondents has heard anything about government action to protect Canada from oil spills, according to that same NRCAN survey.

In response to CBC News's request for comment, Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson pointed to the government's steps to regulate emissions.

"Our sector-by-sector regulatory approach allows us to protect the environment and support economic prosperity. We have already put regulations in place for two of the largest sources of emissions in this country: the transportation and the electricity-generation sectors."

But the opposition reads the numbers a different way.

'Social licence'

"I found results around whether or not the government was in a good position to transport oil safely or deal with effectively with spills really stark and telling," said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie in an interview with CBC News.

Leslie thinks social licence is waning for big projects since the federal government streamlined its environmental regulations in 2012.

Anti-Enbridge rally, Kitimat, June, 2012

Some opponents to the Northern Gateway Pipeline project, which would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., fear effects of a potential oil spill on the B.C. coast. (Robin Rowland/Canadian Press)

"The gutting of our environmental legislation means people don't trust that we have the policies or procedures in place to take care of things like spills," said Leslie.

"They've made their own bed on this file and now they are going to have to lie in it. This is their own doing."

Johnson, however, argues the federal government has taken some big steps to respond to that public concern by working with Alberta on environmental monitoring of the oilsands and has made a series of announcements in the last two years on its "world class tanker safety strategy".

"The government of Canada believes that economic prosperity and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive goals," he said.

Nonetheless, the documents show the Harper government has a big challenge in getting broad support for its so-called policy of responsible resource development, said Plourde.

"From a policy perspective, basically if you are the feds, you want to run away from this issue," he said. "In some sense you know you can't win."

Plourde, a former top bureaucrat with the federal Department of Natural Resources, said the polls suggest the current approach isn't working.

"On the energy-environment relationship, talk less and act more would be a good place to start."

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