By Bruce Cameron, President, Return On Insight, March 3, 2014
As the prospect of war in Ukraine grows, and temperatures across North America remain well below seasonal norms, security of energy supply has become a hot topic.
Increasing concerns about energy security are shifting the climate debate in unexpected ways. The heated debate over oilsands and pipeline development in North America may cool off considerably, as geopolitical events push Europe, the US and Canada closer together.
The realization of the dream of North American energy independence will foster a renewed sense of confidence and possibility, boosting the US and Canadian economies in subtle but powerful ways, despite the rise in energy prices. There are already signs of “green fatigue” in Europe as financial pressures increase. Now the Bakken find has brought prosperity to sleepy towns across the US Midwest, along with typical boom-bust problems of congestion, pollution, domestic violence and labour shortages. In Canada’s north, billions of dollars of oilsands investments promise a “secure energy future” at least until the need for fossil fuels is replaced by renewables.
The return of a “cold war’ posture between Russia and the West provides a chilling new perspective that will lead to increased support for pipelines across America’s heartland and selective support for some projects on BC’s coast, such as the creation of LNG export terminals and the tripling of the Trans Mountain pipeline corridor.
It is easy to forget the tense standoff between East and West that dominated society’s thoughts and actions from the 1950s until the fall of communism in 1989. But recent actions taken by Russia’s state run gas company GazProm to turn the screws on Ukraine by raising prices and restricting gas supply, reveals an ugly reality: energy is and always has been a potent weapon of war.
The turmoil in Ukraine, and to some degree the overlooked violence in Venezuela, will affect the battle between the energy industry and environmentalists in several ways:
- Militarization will create a deepening appreciation for energy security. Poland recently mobilized troops on its eastern borders, as Russia took control of Crimean airports and border crossings, and the Ukrainian Navy was “ordered” to hand over two warships to a Russian commander. Such provocative actions will cause normally thoughtful pro environmental citizens to opt firstly for energy security, and secondly for sustainability. If the sabre rattling and political volatility in the world continues in 2014, expect the power of environmentalists to wane in proportion to the extent of militarization occurring.
- Vocalization: Social Media ROi has been tracking online discussions of energy, environmental and First Nations issues since June 2012. In that time we have seen a slow but steady shift toward greater assertiveness and confidence being expressed among allies of energy development. This slow awakening among those in favour of sustainable development is the reason we see neutral comments shrinking and a partial leveling of the balance between opponents of pipeline projects (who are still ascendant) and supporters (whose numbers are small but growing).
- Localization: Local pipeline projects all across North America may see a reduction in opposition in areas where meaningful consultations with affected communities and First Nations are taking place. Justin Trudeau’s recent quasi endorsement of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline is a good example of this shift. Another ‘localization’ trend to watch in Canada is a concerted push by conservative organizers to win more seats in municipal elections. This effort to challenge left leaning politicians who dominate most city councils in Canada (even Calgary) will involve identifying and amplifying support for economic development projects like pipelines.
In a world suddenly reminded of the audacity of Russian power and ambition, the prospect of America securing a stable supply of oil and gas from friendly, peaceful, reasonable Canada looks a lot more enticing. The moderates in Congress who will ultimately determine the fate of Keystone now have a set of “clear and present dangers” to consider: disruptions in oil supply from unstable places like Venezuela and Nigeria, rising international oil and gas prices, and a Europe divided into East and West factions.
The fight to stop pipelines will not end, but it may soften as the benefits of secure, reliable linkages between the US and Canada in energy production and transportation are brought into focus with each new act of Russian aggression.
Scant comfort for environmentalists in a cold world struggling to combat global warming.
Return On Insight integrates market research techniques and social media metrics to help clients stay ahead of fast changing shifts in public opinion. www.return-on-insight.com