And so far what we’ve learned is that energy and environmental issues haven’t stirred much interest among the candidates or GOP primary voters. Obviously the economy trumps all other concerns, let alone questions about an endangered fish. Besides, Republican candidates are appealing to their base, not to independents much less liberal Democrats, who may feel more strongly about Lake Erie fish.
That’s why to learn more about voter attitudes, nothing beats opinion polls that drill down for responses to specific issues. Several recent polls offered some interesting and maybe surprising results regarding how Americans view jobs, energy and the environment. None were on coal mining per se, but their findings may interest you.
Several days after President Obama touted increased oil and gas production in his State of the Union speech, 69% of respondents in a survey of more than 1,000 adult Americans said they agreed with him. Only a fifth did not. A clear majority of both Democrats and independents joined Republicans in supporting greater energy production on public lands.
Would Americans want to “significantly expand oil and gas production” on federal lands and coastlines if this were proposed by an oil company executive? Maybe not; the messenger can sometimes be the message. And for all of his problems, the president remains fairly likeable. Yet in the same poll, 64% favored construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—to strengthen U.S. energy independence from Mideast oil, they said—despite the perceived environmental risks and the absence of presidential support. The president has not approved this project, even though relatively few (22%) oppose it. What’s more, a greater percentage of respondents (42%) believe growth is more likely to be restored by cutting regulation, taxes and spending than with the palliatives the president offered (35%).
Who are these Americans who prize jobs and energy security over environmental risks? Surprisingly, they include a majority of Democrats, a majority of urban dwellers and even a majority of young people—the composite profile of likely environmentalists. Amazing how 25% youth unemployment and a four-year economic slump concentrates the mind.
Another poll last month, this one in six western states, offered still more surprises, though less pleasing ones. This Colorado College survey, using pollsters well-known to the NMA, found 65% identified themselves as “conservationists.” The term was not defined but is not meaningless, either, since more than 60% of respondents in Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico favored the EPA’s tougher standards to control power plant emissions, and clear majorities said the loss of fish and wildlife habitat were serious to very serious concerns. A very high 85% believe federal parks and wilderness areas are essential parts of their state’s economy. So while they didn’t call themselves “environmentalists,” these “conservationists”—from very resource-intensive states friendly to mining—were certainly not indifferent to the natural environment.
In fact, when asked what energy source they would like to see encouraged, their answer was—not coal. They didn’t mention coal any more than the president did in his speech. Actually, solar power, followed by other renewable fuels, was the big winner in these states. Except in the big coal states of Montana and Wyoming—where wind power was the favorite, outranking solar. Wyoming? Yup.
A majority in New Mexico and Montana even favored retaining or strengthening their renewable energy standards for power plants.
Make of this what you will. As the NMA sees it, the results show a public still concerned about jobs and the economy but not well informed about the options for improving either one.
Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.