Analysis: What did Ipsos-Reid mean about “northern British Columbia” in the Enbridge pipeline poll?

A poll by Ipsos-Reid, commissioned by Enbridge, released on Jan 4, 2012, gauging support for the Northern Gateway Pipeline, has become almost as controversial as the pipeline itself.

Ipsos-Reid says their “poll conducted on behalf of Enbridge shows that British Colombians are more likely to support than oppose the proposed Northern Gateway Pipelines Project.”

Most important, according to Ipsos-Reid, a majority of British Columbians are not familiar with the Northern Gateway project.

Environmental groups and media reports look at the that unfamiliarity and question whether or not the poll actually represents the views of people in British Columbia.

There were also pointed questions here in northwestern British Columbia about the figures that showed strong support, 55 per cent in what Ipsos-Reid called “northern British Columbia.”

There were also questions from those familiar with the pipeline project, posted on Facebook, Twitter and blogs about the term “oil” used by Ipsos-Reid in its poll questions.

The question
As you may know, Enbridge is the company leading the Northern Gateway Pipelines Project, which is a proposal to build an underground pipeline system between near Edmonton, Alberta and Kitimat, in northern BC. One pipeline will transport oil to Kitimat for export by tanker to China and other Asian markets. A second pipeline will be used to import condensate (a product used to thin oil products for pipeline transport) to Alberta.

Northwest Coast Energy News asked Ipsos-Reid vice -president of public affairs Kyle Braid for clarification.

Overall results

According to Ipsos-Reid, the poll shows slightly more than four-in-ten (42%) residents say they are “very familiar” (5%) or “somewhat familiar” (37%) with the project described above. Another three-in-ten (30%) are “not very familiar” and one-quarter (25%) are “not at all familiar” with the project.

Familiarity (“very” or “somewhat”) is higher among Northern residents (61%), men (48% vs. 37% of women) and older residents (53% of 55+ years vs. 43% of 35-54 years, 30% of 18-34 years).

According to the poll, support for the project is well ahead of opposition. Nearly half (48% overall, 14% “strongly”) of British Columbians say they support the project, compared to one-third (32% overall, 13% “strongly”) in opposition. Two-in-ten (20%) are undecided about the project.

Project support leads opposition in all regions, among both genders and among all age groups. Project support is highest among Northern residents (55%), men (58% vs. 38% of women) and older residents (58% of 55+ years vs. 47% of 35-54 years, 38% of 18-34 years).

Ipsos-Reid says it asked all respondents, on an open-ended basis, to name one main project benefit and one main project concern.
The top project benefit, mentioned by half (51%) of British Columbians, is “employment/ economic benefits”. Less frequently mentioned benefits include “export/trade benefits” (10%) and “better/ safer mode of transport” (5%).

The top mentioned project concerns include “general environmental concerns” (43%) and “risk of spills/leaks” (21%). Less frequently mentioned concerns include “general safety/ protection concerns“(7%), “pollution/ contamination” (5%) and “cost/ expenses” (5%).

In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Enbridge Northern Gateway spokesman Paul Stanway said the poll, released exclusively to Postmedia News, will set a “proper context” for the launch of National Energy Board hearings into Northern Gateway that begin this month in northern B.C.

“The argument often made by our opponents that there is overwhelming opposition from British Columbians in general, and I think that’s far from being an accurate view of what’s going on,” Stanway told the Sun.

Defining the North

As with all polls, the margin of error raises with the smaller number of people questioned as part of the larger sample. Ipsos-Reid acknowledges this when it says

These are the findings of an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted on behalf of Enbridge. The poll of 1,000 adult British Columbians was conducted online using Ipsos-Reid’s national online household panel between December 12 and December 15, 2011. A survey with an unweighted probability sample of this size and a 100% response rate would have an estimated margin of error of ±3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The margin of error would be larger within regions and for other sub-groupings of the survey population. These data were statistically weighted to ensure the sample’s regional and age/sex composition reflects that of the actual BC population according to 2006 Census data.

So what does Ipsos-Reid mean by northern British Columbia?

Braid responded by e-mail, saying the polling company follows regional districts as defined by BC Statistics. “In lieu of providing a list of those districts, an approximate break is everything Williams Lake and above is considered North,” Braid said.

As published on the table (Tables from Ipsos-Reid Northern Gateway poll pdf) handout on the website, Ipsos-Reid interviewed 168 people in “northern British Columbia.” Braid says the 168 people represents 17% of the sample. These interviews would have been weighted down to about 7% in the overall results to reflect the actual population of the North in BC. The margin of error in the North is about +/-7.6%, 19 times out of 20.

Northwest Coast Energy News asked Braid if he knew how much of the sample represents respondents who live along the pipeline route. He replied, “I do not know how many of the Northern interviews were along the pipeline route.”

That likely means that the northern margin of error is much higher. If all of British Columbia north of Williams Lake is looked at carefully, there are actually three subregions within the Ipsos-Reid sample.

West of Prince George there is strong opposition to the pipeline. East and northeast of Prince George, especially in the oil and natural gas fields around the Peace River region, there is strong support for the energy industry and the pipeline. South of Prince George, toward Williams Lake, far away from the pipeline route and not involved in hydrocarbon energy extraction, it is most likely that the respondents there would fall into the “unfamiliar” category.

Oil or bitumen?

For those who live along the pipeline route, the fact that the Northern Gateway pipeline will be carrying diluted bitumen, not standard crude oil, is a key factor among those opposing the pipeline.

In response to the question about use of the oil, Braid responded. “On the use of the word “oil”, I know that few average British Columbians know what bitumen is, so that’s no good. And we also try to avoid the use of loaded words like “tar sands” in these interviews. Using a loaded word results in a question that’s biased in one direction. And if I’m using the arguments of opponents, then maybe I should also be pointing out the economic benefits of the project? I believe it’s better to keep the question as clean as possible with no messaging. And finally, is it really necessary to say that Alberta oil is from the oilsands – what else would it be?”

There are a couple of problems with Braid’s response, which we looked at in an earlier analysis of media coverage during the Keystone XL debate.

As was pointed out in that article, in all its filings with the Northern Gateway Joint Review, Enbridge uses the terms “bitumen,” “diluted bitumen,” or “dilbit,” not oil. Bitumen is not the “bubbling crude,” the boomer generation would remember from the Beverly Hillbillies or the oil covered James Dean in Giant.

As media critics have pointed out, the use of “oil sands” is considered a loaded term by the environmental critics, who prefer “tar sands.” The neutral term is bitumen.

Thus it can be argued the use of oil instead of bitumen, even if the poll respondents are not that familiar with the subject, is itself “a loaded word [that] results in a question that’s biased in one direction.”

Braid’s other point “And finally, is it really necessary to say that Alberta oil is from the oilsands – what else would it be?” It would be conventional crude, which has been coming out of wells in Alberta since 1948, that bubbling crude, not bitumen.

Finally “And if I’m using the arguments of opponents, then maybe I should also be pointing out the economic benefits of the project?” That leads to the other major criticism of the poll from environmentalists, that the poll had no questions about the economic consequences to British Columbia’s tourist and sports fishing industries from any “full bore” (a term used in the JRP filings) pipeline break or even minor pipeline breach or the costs of cleaning up from a major tanker disaster as well as the consequences for tourism and the sports and commercial fisheries from a tanker oil spill.

Critics have pointed to the fact that Enbridge commissioned the poll to question its credibility, and while who pays is always a factor in looking at any polling data, overall any polling company’s success depends on the long term accuracy of its findings. In this case, it is more likely that Ipsos-Reid itself should be included in the “unfamiliar” category.

Ipsos-Reid news release on the Northern Gateway Pipeline poll


Related Links

Enbridge Northern Gateway blog New poll shows strong B.C. support for Gateway

CBC News  48% support for northern B.C. pipeline, says poll

Vancouver Observer Enviros question methodology of Enbridge poll disputing Northern Gateway pipeline opposition


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