PODCAST: What are the priorities of Canadians during the pandemic?

Canadians believe natural gas and oil should be part of our economic recovery. What does that mean for an industry facing major challenges?

Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, chats with Energy Examined on a recent survey that explored how Canadians are feeling during the pandemic and what their key priorities are moving forward.

The survey found the economy and health are key priorities, and the majority of Canadians believe natural gas and oil should help drive an economic recovery, and be part of a green one. We chat with Darrell about these findings and what they mean for an industry facing unprecedented challenges.

Full transcript of podcast:

Leighton: I’m Leighton Klassen and this is the Energy Examined podcast. This fall, Ipsos released a poll on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that ask Canadians what the federal government’s priorities should be as we continue to struggle with COVID and contemplate our future. A clear message came back: the economy is a major concern and should be the number one priority for government. And most believe a sustainable Canadian oil and natural gas industry has a key role to play in restoring jobs and economic growth. Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos Public Affairs, joins me to talk about how Canadians are feeling about the Canadian economic prospects, calls for a green economy and where Canada’s oil natural gas industry can fit in. Welcome to Energy Examined.

Darrell: Thanks for having me on Leighton.

Leighton: So, give us the lay of the land. How are Canadians feeling right now and what are their key priorities for government?

Darrell: We’re very tense, about as tense as anytime I can remember in the 30 years that I’ve been doing public opinion research. And the reason for that is obviously the COVID pandemic. Not only are people concerned about the potential for infection, they’re really concerned about the effect on their personal prosperity. So when you ask people what really is top of mind for them right now, it’s not so much that they’re worried about getting sick as that they’re worried that they’re not going to be able to work tomorrow. They’re not going to be able to pay for their mortgages. They’re not going to be able to have any longer-term future in terms of their economic prosperity. That’s really what’s on their mind.

Leighton: And that kind of leads into my next question. What does the research tell us about how Canadians currently view the Canadian economy and its status?

Darrell: They look at the Canadian economy as not doing particularly well at the moment. In fact, their level of optimism is low, but it’s been low for quite a while, particularly since around the election back in 2019. It’s really been in a fairly steady decline. And COVID did not help.

Leighton: Now, you know, doing this sort of research is what you do. You’ve done a lot of this. But of course, we’ve never been in a pandemic in our existence on the planet. So, how surprised were you at what you’ve seen with this research?

Darrell: Every day is a surprise Leighton. I mean, that’s the thing. We really are into, you know, through the looking glasses as Lewis Carroll talked about in Alice in Wonderland. It’s kind-of a new type of an environment. But as we go through it, what you start to see is that there are some aspects that endure and some things that you recognize. But what you really have to be careful is not to try to prejudice what you’re seeing with what happened in the past. There’s new things happening. There’s new, there’s new opportunities that are being created. There’s new problems are being created. And you have to be open to examine them in their own terms. So that’s the thing that I’m really seeing in all of this, that there is a fair amount of volatility. There’s some things I recognize from the past, but I’m always questioning whether or not I’m just falling back on previous prejudices or ways of looking at things outside of this current context and whether or not we need to open my mind. And those who are looking at these data need to open up our minds to newer possibilities.

Leighton: Now, the survey has a number of questions about the role Canadian oil and natural gas can play in an economic recovery. Can you tell us about some of those major findings?

Darrell: Well, this is one of those areas of newer possibilities that I was just mentioning, where back at the, during the election campaign, it was pretty clear that the real focus of Canadians was on climate change, green policies. The economic consequences of moving in an aggressive direction on those issues were really secondary. What’s happened as a result of the pandemic is because people are really concerned about the economy right now and really thinking about how it is that we’re gonna get back to what at least we had before in terms of economic prosperity. They’re looking at any opportunity out there to get us back on track, which brings the oil and gas industry — a huge part of our economy — back into a bit of a different focus than it was even a year ago.

Leighton: And so, how broad is the support for the industry? And what can you tell us also about the regional differences?

Darrell: Well, it’s close to 60 per cent. And the regional differences are the ones that you would expect. It’s much higher in the places that are directly engaged in the oil and gas industry. So, for example, like Alberta and Saskatchewan and less high in places like, say, for example, downtown Montreal or downtown Toronto or downtown Vancouver. So, there is a bit more of a higher level of support in places that are more familiar with the industry and lower levels in places that are less familiar or feel less connected to the industry.

Leighton: Given that, are those numbers to be optimistic about?

Darrell: Yeah, I really do think so, because what it says is that Canadians have a pretty holistic view of what the economic possibilities are. They’re not prepared to shut the door on anything. They’re prepared to talk to the oil and gas industry about what it is that they can contribute to Canada’s economic recovery. And they want governments in the country, including the federal government, to allow that opportunity to happen. So what it’s going to do is create, I think, a new opportunity out there for the oil and gas industry to talk to Canadians about what’s on their minds today and what kind of solutions the oil and gas industry can bring to the table.

Leighton: OK. One thing on some Canadians’ minds — or many — is climate change. So, how are Canadians feeling about climate change as a priority?

Darrell: It’s a big priority for Canadians in terms of importance. But right now, in terms of intensity of concern, it’s declined quite a bit since the election campaign. And the issue of dealing with the pandemic and particularly the economic consequences of the pandemic are much more salient, I would say and really at the top of the list. It’s not that they want to sacrifice anything on the climate in order to assist with an economic recovery, but they don’t want to sacrifice an economic recovery for really putting the climate change issues at the front of the train.

Leighton: Now, with that, we’ve heard the term green recovery or the opportunity to, quote “build back better,” end quote. Some have taken that to mean a world without oil and natural gas. How do most Canadians view a green recovery as it relates to Canadian oil and natural gas?

Darrell: Well, the majority of Canadians think that the idea of a green recovery would be good, but they put the words in a different order. It’s a recovery with green. So, it’s really a situation in which people are prioritizing the recovery, but they want it to take place in a green type of a context. They do believe that the oil and gas industry is part of that. And that’s what a majority of people in our surveys are telling us. So, it’s not like it’s a binomial choice where it’s the oil and gas industry or a green economic recovery. They see all of this as being integrated, which is a bit of a different perspective than what was being portrayed in the last election campaign, where it was always, you know, about on one side or the other it seemed when you listen to the debates. Canadians, it seems, seem to have a fairly, I would say, sophisticated understanding that we need all parts of the economy to recover if we’re going to have an economic recovery.

Leighton: Now, the survey also highlighted that many Canadians were uncertain or didn’t know enough to form an opinion about the role of the industry. First, why do you think that is? And has the industry done enough to highlight both its economic benefits it brings to Canadians and the industry’s environmental performance?

Darrell: Well, the reason is because not a lot of people feel actually attached to the oil and gas industry. They don’t really see how it’s part of their lives and particularly part of their own personal economic prosperity. So, if it’s not, you know, top of mind in terms of creating your job or top of mind in terms of creating your personal income, you’re not really as associated with it. And if it’s not part of your family’s prosperity, you’re not really thinking about it. So the challenge for the oil and gas industry, particularly in places that are the more populous parts of the country, like, for example, Quebec and Ontario, to be able to communicate what the connection is for these parts of the population. So people who feel less of an investment in the oil and gas industry, why they should be more concerned about it, why they should care more about it, why they should be interested in listening to the story that the oil and gas industry has about how it’s trying to contribute to a green recovery. That’s really the challenge that’s facing people who advocate on behalf of the oil and gas industry. How do you make it relevant and how do you tell them that maybe what you understand about the oil and gas industry or what you think you understand based on the position of the critics, may need to be recalibrated to, I guess I would say, a more realistic understanding of what’s happening.

Leighton: OK. Well, it does sound, based on what you tell me, that Canadians are deeply concerned about the economy. I think that’s pretty obvious. And there’s strong support for the industry to play a role in both the COVID-19 and green recovery. Are there any other insights related to that, that you’d like to add to share that we didn’t cover?

Darrell: Yeah, I think the big part of all of this is it’s really, you know, all hands on deck. That’s what people are thinking right now. They really feel that the, any part of the economy that can contribute to the recovery should be given a hearing and should be given an opportunity. As a result of that, the oil and gas industry has an opportunity to talk. I would say, more emphatically about what the economic opportunities are within the industry and what it contributes to the Canadian economy, but also how the public’s perception that’s been, I would say, largely driven by criticism of the oil and gas industry and the critics of the oil and gas industry on green issues, how maybe we really need to rethink some of that and maybe that we need to open our ears a little bit more and listen to a wider set of positions on these issues. So, I actually look at the data right now and our surveys and say there’s an opportunity here to have that conversation.

Leighton: OK, well, great. Well, thanks very much for speaking with us today, Darrell.

Darrell: My pleasure. Thanks Leighton.

Leighton: And that was our conversation with Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos Public Affairs. Stay tuned for our next Energy Examined podcast. And if you liked this episode, share it with a friend and make sure you subscribe on whatever podcast network you use. For more stories and interviews on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website, context.capp.ca. See you next time.

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