New Poll Shows Enbridge Proposal Has Deficit of Trust and Legitimacy

The inept communication from Enbridge is not surprising. The business community as a whole is naive about the rules that govern public communication when the public starts out inattentive and mistrustful. Unfortunately this is also one of those proposals with a fatal flaw. The more the public learns about the Northern Gateway proposal the more they opposed it.

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Vancouver, BC – A new poll sheds light on what motivates public opinion about the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project. It shows that British Columbians do not trust most key influencers and decision-makers associated with the proposal, and that perceptions of its legitimacy are sharply divided.

Key results include: 81% of British Columbians believe the Northern Gateway project will benefit Alberta, 53% say it will benefit Canada, and 43% say it will benefit BC. 77% of British Columbians partially or completely distrust Enbridge when it comes to the project: 53% do not trust Enbridge at all. Only 28% of respondents say the proposal is part of a future they believe in, but 39% of British Columbians think that the project is going to happen whether or not they support it.

The research was conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, a practice of Vision Critical, on behalf of Vancouver resident Gavin Dew, as part of his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) thesis at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Survey questions were fielded on August 22nd, 2012. Result tables are provided below.

“The prognosis for Enbridge isn’t great,” said Dew. “If they’re going to turn it around, Enbridge and its allies need to make the national economic benefit tangible and real for everyday British Columbians. They need to better explain how their proposal fits into a future that people want to believe in.” On the other hand, “Enbridge’s opponents have succeeded in painting the project as morally illegitimate; part of the past, not the future. Opponents would be wise to keep hammering their message that the benefits will accrue to Alberta and to ‘big business’ in the abstract, while everyday British Columbians take the lion’s share of the risk.”

Dew’s research focused on the meaning and measurement of ‘social license to operate’, an academic concept that covers the requirement of social approval for businesses to function effectively. ‘Trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ are key components of social license.

“Companies increasingly recognize the importance of social license to operate – but there is no real consensus on what it means, and even less on how to measure it,” said Dew. “Public opinion acts as ‘civil regulation,’ compelling companies to go beyond compliance with formal laws and regulations.”

The polling included both general and project-specific questions, using the Enbridge Northern Gateway project as a test case.

“Enbridge is a perfect, relatively unique, and contained example because it symbolizes a major debate about the future of Canada, and it also illustrates the growing importance of social license as a concern for business,” said Dew. “This research demonstrates a new way of using polling to map the pressure points that matter most for a given project.”

To test trust in general, respondents were asked ‘to what extent do you trust the following to do what is right?’ The results were converted into a “Net Trust” measure by subtracting distrust from trust – for example, 33% of British Columbians trust the media in general and 63% distrust it, yielding a Net Trust score of -30%. Other notable Net Trust scores include: business (-16%), government (-32%), regulatory agencies (-8%), and environmentalist groups (+8%). Tables are below.

“There is a major trust deficit in BC,” argues Dew, “especially when it comes to traditional authorities and sources of information.”

Respondents were also asked ‘to what extent do you trust the following to do what is right when it comes to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline?’ General versus Enbridge-specific Net Trust varies significantly in some cases. The BC government’s general Net Trust is -33%, and its Enbridge-specific Net Trust is -30%. The Canadian government scores -24% in general, and -35% regarding Enbridge. The Alberta government scores -30% generally and -47% regarding Enbridge. First Nations groups score -20% in general and -7% regarding Enbridge. Regulators score -8% in general, and the Joint Review Panel scores -12% regarding Enbridge. Tables are below.

Enbridge suffers a significant trust gap on its own proposal. For comparison, business has general Net Trust of -16%, and the energy industry scores -50%. With regard to its own project, Enbridge scores -62% Net Trust: 77% of people distrust Enbridge, and only 15% trust the company. Strong feelings are highly consolidated: 53% have no trust at all in Enbridge, and only 2% trust the company completely, yielding a Net Strong Trust of     -51%.

“Just as business needs a social license to act, the influence that government and civil society groups can exercise depends on what I call their social license to critique,” said Dew. “Clearly there are very few influencers who have sufficient public trust to move the dial on the Enbridge issue, and especially few supporters with strong public trust.”

The poll also tested the perceived legitimacy of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, measuring three different forms of legitimacy: pragmatic, moral, and cognitive. Pragmatic legitimacy is based on perceived direct, indirect, and social benefits. Moral legitimacy is based on values alignment. Cognitive legitimacy is based on comprehensibility or inevitability.

In terms of pragmatic legitimacy, 81% of British Columbians believe the project will benefit Alberta, 53% say it will benefit Canada, 43% say it will benefit BC, 32% say it will benefit them indirectly, and 13% say it will benefit them directly.

Regarding moral legitimacy, 28% of respondents say the project is part of a future they believe in, and 23% say it feels like the right thing to do.

“Enbridge has a major moral legitimacy problem,” surmises Dew.

Tests of cognitive legitimacy show that the perceived novelty of the project is a drag on public support: many British Columbians are seemingly uncomfortable or unfamiliar with energy infrastructure. Only 28% of respondents agreed with a statement testing the comprehensibility of the project: ‘even if I don’t agree with it, it seems logical based on my past experience.’ A question testing resignation to the perceived inevitability of the project received 39% agreement: ‘it is going to happen anyway, whether or not I support it.’

Further analysis helps illustrate what motivates support or opposition to the project. Among supporters, 90% agree that the project will benefit Canada, and 85% agree that it will benefit BC. 69% of supporters agree that it is ‘part of a future that I believe in,’ and 60% say that it ‘feels like the right thing to do.’ 63% of supporters say ‘even if I don’t agree with it, it seems logical based on my past experience.’

On the other hand, 93% of people who oppose the project reject the statement that ‘it feels like the right thing to do’, 89% of opponents disagree with ‘it is part of a future that I believe in,’ 88% do not believe ‘it will benefit me directly,’ 75% disagree that it will benefit BC, and 60% disagree that it will benefit Canada. 83% of opponents reject the statement ‘even if don’t agree, it seems logical.’ Notably, 80% of people who oppose the project still believe it will benefit Alberta.

“Whether you’re trying to persuade a reluctant public to accept a project or rally opposition to stop it, this kind of analysis lets you shape policies and messages that work,” said Dew. “You need to understand the lay of the land early in the process in order to gain social license. Both reality and perception matter.”

“There is no line item for social license in a company’s balance sheet, but it is a critical strategic asset,” argues Dew. “It’s about dollars and cents, not just warm and fuzzy feelings. Companies across Canada are learning from watching the Enbridge situation unfold. They’re learning just how expensive it can be to lose your social license. We’ll be studying Enbridge for decades, whatever the outcome.”
 
Survey Details:

The survey sample included 802 randomly selected people, with a margin of error of  +/- 3.5%. The results were then statistically weighted according to Census data in order to provide a representative sample of the British Columbia adult population, reflecting education, age, gender, and region.

 

For more information about this survey please contact Gavin Dew at Gavin.dew@gmail.com