THE BLOG
02/20/2014 05:52 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

The B.C. Battle For Enbridge Northern Gateway Polls

I'm sure The Vancouver Sun's spotty coverage of the polling debate has much more to do with a lack of resources and the rush to get stories online than it has to do with the millions of dollars Enbridge and the oil industry spends with Postmedia -- but the optics aren't good.

A strange chain of events played out in The Vancouver Sun newspaper in the past couple of weeks.

First, on Feb. 5, the newspaper ran the results of a poll commissioned by Dogwood Initiative and three other B.C. non-profit groups that found 64 per cent of British Columbians are opposed to bringing oil tankers into B.C.'s inside waters, including 50 per cent who are strongly opposed.

(Full disclosure: author Emma Gilchrist worked both for Dogwood Initiative and Postmedia, the company that owns The Vancouver Sun.)

Let's get one thing straight right away: all polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Anyone who has followed the Enbridge Northern Gateway debate closely has watched all sides of the debate trot out surveys with vastly different results. They all claim their poll gave the respondents the undisputed facts and the people have spoken. And they're all right -- in a sense.

When Enbridge itself asks the question, they focus on the pipeline, ensure respondents know it'll be underground (I'm sure they focus-grouped the living daylights out of that one) and include lots of technical detail about things like condensate. And when Enbridge asked the question that way in late 2011, they came out with a result indicating more British Columbians were in favour of the pipeline than against it (48 per cent to 32 per cent). What you don't see in that result is how many different ways and different times they had to ask the question to get there.

On the flip side, when environmental groups ask the question, they tend to focus on oil tankers in inside coastal waters and the threat of an oil spill. And when they ask the question their way, they tend to find 65 per cent of British Columbians opposed to Enbridge's oil tanker proposal. They too have honed in on how to ask the question to get the result they want, but they have a lot less money both to focus group questions and to poll continually until they get a desirable result.

Given the fickleness of any given polling result, the Vancouver Sun's initial treatment of the latest Dogwood poll was fairly circumspect. While it didn't give Enbridge a chance to respond directly to the findings, it did quote December's B.C. Chamber of Commerce poll, which used Enbridge's polling question, and analyzed the way the question was asked. The sub-headline even read: "Results not surprising in survey commissioned by environmental groups."

It should be noted that when the Vancouver Sun covered the release of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce poll, the results ran unrefuted -- with nearly no analysis of the polling question and no response from environmental groups. (That poll found 47 per cent of British Columbians support the project and 44 per cent oppose it -- a 12 per cent jump in opposition in the two years since Enbridge released its poll with exactly the same question. The Sun didn't make that connection.)

So, here's where things get weird: in response to the latest poll commissioned by enviros, Enbridge whipped up a two-minute video refuting its findings and released it exclusively to the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, Feb. 8. The Vancouver Sun ran an entire story dedicated to Enbridge's argument, including embedding the video on its website. The story had no commentary from the environmental groups who actually commissioned the poll.

Enbridge execs had their knickers in a twist because the poll referenced oil tankers entering the inside passage, which the company disputes. To be clear: oil tankers will cross through the inside passage and throughout B.C.'s inside coastal waters, but they won't sail up and down the inside passage. Sure enough, the wording could have been better, but it hardly warranted the Sun running a two-minute video response, which was essentially an ad for Enbridge.

It seems the good folks over at The Vancouver Sun had that realization later on because the story that went to print on Tuesday, Feb. 11 included fulsome rebuttals from both Dogwood Initiative and Justason Market Intelligence, rather than straight-up PR spin from Enbridge.

The story noted that at the end of the poll, respondents were asked what type of organization they thought sponsored it -- more than 50 per cent thought the research was sponsored by a group either in support of Enbridge's proposal, or neutral. So while Enbridge may claim bias, the citizens involved in the poll didn't get that sense.

A day after Enbridge's attack on their poll, Dogwood Initiative invited Enbridge to collaborate on a new poll with them.

"In the spirit of the balanced and fair public conversation ... Enbridge and Dogwood Initiative could develop a question that describes the full scope and location of the proposal and then work together with an independent polling organization to field it," the statement says. "We could split the costs and release the results publicly. This is a sincere offer, and we hope Enbridge will accept."

So far, Dogwood hasn't heard back from Enbridge -- and their challenge hasn't received much attention. Perhaps newspaper editors are too embarrassed by the way it shines a light on the budget constraints that prevent them from commissioning their own polls these days?

I'm sure the Vancouver Sun's spotty coverage of the polling debate has much more to do with a lack of resources and the rush to get stories online than it has to do with the millions of dollars Enbridge and the oil industry spends with Postmedia -- but the optics aren't good.

The poll fiasco went down in the same week Postmedia laid off its top environment reporter Mike De Souza as part of a downsizing of its parliamentary bureau and a leaked presentation gave indications of a slightly-too-cozy relationship between Postmedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Readers could be forgiven for wondering what exactly drove the Sun to embed Enbridge's video rebuttal in its story. Perhaps the best way to find out for sure is for environmental groups to issue a video rebuttal to the Vancouver Sun the next time industry releases poll results -- and then to sit back and wait for it to run in its entirety. It may not have the same production values as the Enbridge video, but surely the fact Enbridge neglects to mention oil tankers in inside coastal waters (the very issue British Columbians are most concerned about) is worthy of a response?

- Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada