Bombast from media pundits (hello, Rex Murphy) turning off Canadians to legitimate pipeline issues?

Rex Murphy on CBC. Photo: CBC

Where is the media commentary on energy issues that is based upon fact, evidence, and expert insight?

Is there a topic of Canadian political discussion that generates more nonsense than pipelines and the Alberta oil sands? The national discourse on both extremes of the issue comes completely unmoored after every twist and turn of the Trans Mountain Expansion “crisis.” As a consequence, the majority of Canadians seem to be tuning out the debate.

A new survey from Abacus Data – it also addressed Canadian opinions about carbon pricing – about the 590,000 b/d pipeline project that will stretch almost 1,200 kms from the Edmonton area to Burnaby proves the point.

“The binary (pro or anti-oil) advocacy of left and right partisans on these issues may resonate with activists and party bases but doesn’t connect as well with mainstream voters,” writes pollster Bruce Anderson.

“The level of public engagement on carbon pricing and the TMX pipeline is higher than on some other issues, but a lot of people do not have strong or dogmatic views on either issue.”

Nationally, 34 per cent of Canadians support TMX, 20 per cent oppose, and 46 per cent have no strong views.

Imagine that. The news story that dominates the Canadian news cycle these days and almost half of us have no opinion one way or the other.

Even in British Columbia, ground zero for TMX opposition, the numbers aren’t much different (33% support, 28% oppose, 39% no strong views).

This is a pocket book issue for hundreds of thousands of workers. Why are Canadians so disengaged about an issue so central to the continued success of the national economy (petroleum products account for USD$84.6 billion, 20.1% of all exports in 2017. The auto sector is a distance second at 14%)?

I have a theory: lack of clarity caused by my industry’s failure to properly report and explain the issues.

Hyperbolic, opinion-dominated journalism is ill-suited to communicating the complexity of highly technical projects like pipelines.

Instead of helping readers sort, structure, and understand the deluge of information about Trans Mountain Expansion, media pundits focus on exciting indignation and outrage.

Take Rex Murphy and this florid headline, “How much more can Canadians ask Alberta to take?”

To the long-time CBC and National Post bloviator, Alberta is a victim. Environmentalists (“green and global warming totalism”), the courts, Justin Trudeau and his government (“whose concern for its environmentalist credentials and its thirst for the admiration of global progressive voices is its deepest political emotion”) are all out to get poor Alberta.

“Thus this week’s court decision was neither singular nor defining. It was just one more stammer in a long pattern of stammering, the latest rock on the road, one fortified by the mentality that governs the long-prevalent bias against this one industry, the dismissal of “Albertan” concerns as always secondary to more “principled” ones, and just another thread in an extremely well-woven tapestry,” Murphy wrote on the day the Federal Court of Appeal quashed Ottawa’s approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion project.

James Coleman is a professor of energy law at the Dedman School of Law at the Southern Methodist University in Texas. He says when American environmental review legislation for major projects was first passed, assessments took 30 days and were 15 pages long. After decades of judicial review and thousands of legal precedents, they now take six years and run to 15,000 pages.

“President Obama was trying to speed it up, President Bush was trying to speed it up, President Clinton was trying to speed it up. I just think it’s too simple-minded to blame one government or politician,” he said in an interview.

The simple-minded view of commentators like Murphy is that under Donald Trump the United States has abandoned regulatory hurdles to pipeline construction and industry has carte blanche to build what it needs as expeditiously as needed.

Not so, says Victor Flatt, faculty director of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Center at the University of Houston, thanks to federal legislation like National Environmental Policy Act.

“We’re seeing that with every major interstate gas pipeline that’s being proposed and built out in the United States right now, including the Atlantic Coast pipeline, the Trail pipeline, still part of Keystone and part of Dakota Access, all those issues are still playing out,” he told Energi News in an exclusive interview.

“The Trump administration would like to do nothing about greenhouse gases for oil and gas extraction, and transference by pipeline or rail, but because of NEPA that won’t come to pass in any consistent way. What we’re looking at in the United States is continued litigation.”

Continued litigation? Doesn’t that sound Canadian, eh?

Turns out Canada is not the only country struggling to balance environmental issues and pipelines.

Perhaps Canadians would be more engaged about national issues like pipelines if Murphy and his ilk spent less time inflaming the bigotry of their small base of rabid adherents – whether on the left or right, both are guilty of this tactic – and more time reporting and explaining the issues to the great majority in the middle.

Citizens are hungry for fact-based, sober analysis of the energy issues confronting this country. They are not getting it from Postmedia and other corporate news media.

I’ve picked on Murphy because he’s an egregious example of the problem, but he is far from alone. The Vancouver alt-media, for instance, simply fabricates stories to inflame anti-pipeline feelings in British Columbia.

As Abacus CEO David Coletto said of his survey, ““This is another reminder that few Canadians view issues through a black or white/all or nothing frame.”

Perhaps media commentary on energy stories should take a cue from the data, dialing down the overwrought rhetoric and focusing more on facts and expert analysis.

Over to you, Rex.

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