10/02/2015 11:10 EDT | Updated 10/02/2015 11:59 EDT

Albertans Want Tighter Oilsands Environmental Enforcement: Poll

The oilsands might have some image-polishing to do.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A tailings pond stands at a Syncrude Canada Ltd. mining site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Canadian oil companies have benefited as the gap between oil-sands crude grade Western Canada Select and U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate narrowed from a record $42.50 a barrel in December. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

EDMONTON — New poll results suggest that Alberta's oilsands may have some image-polishing to do even in their own back yard.

Days after NDP Premier Rachel Notley referred to her province's environmental record as an "embarrassing cousin that no one wants to talk about,'' data provided to The Canadian Press indicates her fellow Albertans are a bit shamefaced as well.

The poll, done by Ekos Research for the clean energy think-tank Pembina Institute, found 60 per cent of 18,000 Albertans surveyed believed the provincial government doesn't enforce environmental rules on the oilsands very strictly. A total of 70 per cent of respondents said the government should be tougher.

The results were fairly consistent across age and income groups, as well as in different regions of the province.

Concern tended to be highest in Edmonton, where 84 per cent backed stricter enforcement. In Alberta's rural south, where concern was weakest, a slight majority thought the rules should be more closely observed.

"In many ways, Albertans are ahead of the industry and province on this,'' said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute. "Albertans are saying there are real environmental issues that need to be discussed.''

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to comment on the poll.

Spokesman Markus Ermisch instead pointed to a recent study conducted for the group that found Alberta's environmental rules are ahead of 10 other top oil-producing jurisdictions, including Britain, Norway, U.S. states and some Gulf producers.

That study looked at the rules themselves and not how they are put into effect.

Dyer denied a suggestion that the concerns shown in the poll could be driven by media coverage.

"I think it's a product of real evidence and environmental impacts that aren't being addressed.''

The poll also indicated that Albertans strongly back conservation in the oilsands area. About 95 per cent of respondents wanted oilsands companies to restore wetlands equal to the amount disturbed by their operations. And two-thirds wanted to see more of the province's boreal forest protected.

More than half the minable oilsands area is composed of wetlands. Industry plans to attempt to restore less than half of that.

Current wetlands policy, developed under the previous Conservative government, exempts both existing projects and those still in the regulatory phase from restoration targets.

"Albertans don't understand why the oilsands should be exempted from the norms of environmental management,'' Dyer said. "You can say you support oil and gas and still say you want higher standards.''

The Ekos poll sampled randomly selected Albertans between late August and early September and is considered accurate 19 times out of 20.

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