Should Terry McAuliffe Heed This Poll?


by James A. Bacon

A poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network shows strong public opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and strong support for tougher restrictions on the disposal of coal ash.

Twenty-eight percent of Virginia voters support Governor Terry McAuliffe’s backing of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline while 44% oppose it, found a poll conducted by the Cromer Group in a run-up to a planned picketing of the governor’s office in October.

Meanwhile, 71% of voters polled said McAuliffe should follow the example of other southern states by requiring coal ash to be deposited in lined landfills rather than buried in place near rivers.

“This poll shows that Governor McAuliffe’s cheerleading for fracked-gas pipelines is not only dangerous for communities and the climate, but decidedly unpopular in Virginia,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in a press release. “The Governor likes to dismiss both the pipelines and coal ash as ‘federal issues’ beyond his influence, but that’s untrue. He has direct executive power to act on behalf of Virginians facing direct harm now. Governor McAuliffe has the means and the moral responsibility to reject the pipelines and to reform coal ash disposal, and his legacy depends on it.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This poll of 732 registered Virginia voters asked two questions. The questions were not laughably slanted, as in some push polls I’ve seen.

(A great example is a American Civil Liberties Union poll sitting on my desk that I actually may respond to, just for yuks. Sample question: “Across the country, we’re seeing efforts to twist the meaning of religious liberty to allow people and businesses to use religion as a license to discriminate and a means to impose their religious beliefs on others. How serious a problem do you think the use of religion to discriminate is in our country today?”)

Though the Cromer Group questions don’t sink to the level of the ACLU’s risible push poll, that’s not to say the phrasing of the questions didn’t nudge respondents toward the desired answers. The first question reads as follows:

Governor McAuliffe supports building two long pipelines that would bring gas from West Virginia into Virginia and send it across the state. He says the pipelines will create jobs, lower bills, help manufacturing, and help the environment. This gas would be extracted through hydraulic fracturing drilling, or fracking. Opponents say these pipelines will allow energy corporations to take hundreds of miles of privately owned land from citizens for private corporate gain. Opponents also say the pipelines will harm Virginia farms, worsen pollution, and damage drinking water and local wells. Weighing the pros and cons, do you support the Governor’s efforts to build these pipelines for fracked gas across Virginia, or not?

The statements within the question are accurate, or at least arguably so. The questions do not contain obviously biased language. They mention reasons to both support and oppose the pipeline. However, the question devotes only 14 words to the “pro” side while giving 41 words to the “con” side. In addition, it refers twice to “fracking” and “fracked gas,” which one could argue are loaded phrases.

Here is the second question:

For decades, Dominion Power has burned coal to create electricity, resulting in an accumulation of millions of tons of coal ash waste near the banks of the Potomac, James, and other rivers. This waste must now be disposed of. Dominion wants to leave its coal ash waste in the ground, covering the top of the ash and not placing protective barriers or linings along the bottom. Dominion says this is safe. North and South Carolina and Georgia have rejected this method as unsafe. They have required the coal ash be moved away from rivers and drinking water into protected, lined landfills. Do you think the Governor should support Dominion’s approach, OR, follow the example of other Southern States to remove the ash to modern landfills?

Again, the statement is accurate and it contains no loaded language. Yet it frames the issue in such a way as to ask the respondent, who likely has no independent knowledge to draw from, to choose between believing Dominion or believing three state governments regarding the best way to dispose of coal ash. The question clearly leads the respondent to group’s preferred answer.

That’s not to say that the question is illegitimate. Virginians should take into consideration the regulatory approaches of other states when pondering how best to regulate coal ash in Virginia. But that is only one way to frame the question. Alternatively, the poll could have focused respondents on the cost of the coal ash disposal. Dominion has estimated the bill could total $3 billion. Environmentalists say it would cost less. I dare say that a question focusing on cost would have yielded different results.

Are those biases in the questions sufficient to skew the findings? Is this a poll that Governor McAuliffe should take seriously? Now that I’ve biased you with my analysis, you tell me. Please respond in the comments section.

Update: Dominion spokesman David Botkins has issued the following statement: “Dominion’s plans for closing coal ash ponds as well as building the ACP protect the environment. To say otherwise is untrue. Over the last many months Dominion has developed plans to close our ponds by consolidating the ash on station property.  EPA endorses that approach. The poll is an obvious effort to use biased questions based on incorrect information to slant the results.”

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13 responses to “Should Terry McAuliffe Heed This Poll?

  1. “A century of burning coal for heat and electricity has polluted Virginia’s air and water, but in recent years natural gas has emerged as a cheaper and cleaner alternative, and is now the preferred fuel for electric generation and industrial applications. Switching to more natural gas will allow Virginia to meet the Clean Power Plan at a reasonable cost. It is also abundant here in the United States and reduces our need to purchase oil from despotic regimes overseas. The safest way to transport the gas to Virginia is to add a few hundred more miles of buried pipeline to the more than 2,000 miles of underground major pipelines already criss-crossing the state. Would you encourage the Governor to support this alternative, or would you prefer to burn polluting coal or buy oil from ISIS?”

    Well, if you put it THAT way……betcha I’d get 70 percent plus!

  2. Give me a break, Bacon. Just can’t stand a legitimate poll. And now a message from our sponsor…

    • As I demonstrated in my own classic example, question bias is really easy to spot when you see a tilt in the final few words of the text. And if the text doesn’t rotate, so the “con” argument always comes last. Just mentioning Dominion in the last line of the second question introduces bias, as you noted! And in the other question there is that ominous sounding “fracked gas”. Some of us are fans of that fracking Battlestar Galactica series…..alot of fracking going on in that, as I recall…..

      A better poll would skip the dicta and take what came from simple questoins, which would be a whole lot of “gee, I dunno” even from registered voters. Without all the preamble the undecided would be far higher than 17 percent.

  3. Let’s investigate the pollsters for fraud and charge and prosecute them if we can legally do so. And call the the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) by the name they are, dishonest zealots.

  4. I don’t think I’d place much credence in a poll from either DVP or the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) on a pipeline.

    • Agree with TMT/Acbar and point out that in BR – we get the DVP point of view far more than others…. and sometimes pablum and offal.

      but I usually dismiss out of hand – any poll commissioned directly by folks with a direct interest in the issue…either side – . you just know they won’t behave on the wording.

      and I don’t even take just one independent poll as the final word – either. I trust certain pollsters more than others… based on what they’ve done on prior polls… some are good..some are hacks

      I think most Virginians would want DVP to do what most other states are doing with coal ash… it walks and talks like superfund.

      The 3 billion cost is how much per monthly bill spread over a couple of years ? a buck? what is this stupid stuff that DVP is engaging in? just clean it up and move on.

      On the pipeline – and the use of eminent domain – I don’t know about you guys but what I hear from the right these days is angst with the govt and eminent domain… and I suspect a straight up poll on the merits of eminent domain for the pipeline will not show wide pubic support.

  5. Ditto to TMT’s response. Not only as to a pipeline but as to any utility infrastructure. As Steve Haner demonstrates beautifully above, you can remain entirely “factual” while turning CCAN’s question bias on its head. We also don’t know anything about how the public was sampled to respond to these questions.

  6. On the coal ash issue – anything prohibited by North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia needs to be revisited. These are hardly northern liberal states which persecute large corporations. All 3 states have Republican governors. All 3 also have prohibitive Republican majorities in both houses of their state government.

    Wait a minute ….

    Could it be that the real corporate ass kissers and environment destroyers aren’t really Republicans after all? Could it be that the pathological strain of Demoliar associated with Criminillary are the real crony capitalist sell outs of our environment to big business?

    Nah … it’s just the usual runaway corruption in Virginia – America’s most corrupt state.

    Georgia caps campaign contribution limits for corporations at $6,300 for statewide candidates and $2,500 for legislative candidates.

    North Carolina prohibits corporations from making donations to candidates. Individuals are limited to $5,000 per candidate per election.

    South Carolina limits contributions to state-wide candidates to $3,500 and legislative candidates can only take $1,000. Same limits for individual and corporations.

    Of course, in dear ole Virginia anybody – individuals, PACs, parties, unions and corporations can donate as much as they want to anyone they want as often as they want.

    Gee, I wonder why the largest corporate donor in the state gets let off the hook on pipelines and coal ash by both the Republicans and the Democrats regardless of what the voter – taxpayers think?

    Virginia state government – the best hand puppets to vested interests that money can buy.

    • Don, you make good points on campaign contributions. But in age of electronic communications, I’m troubled by the exceptions from federal campaign laws for the “press” where editorials and media coverage are not considered a contribution. That made sense in the ink and paper world. But in a world of electrons, why does Jeff Bezos get a pass for the Post, but other corporations are regulated.

  7. The Virginia coal ash issue has dropped off the radar screen in recent months. I thought we were expecting a major court ruling on the lawsuit by Virginia environmental groups – did it fail?

    I get the daily Southeast Energy News in my emails but its all about coal ash in NC etc. no more VA news.

  8. A good poll might ask a series of similar environmental questions in simple terms without tilting the questions.

    1. – Do you support the continued use of EPA-designated superfund sites in Va to continue to operate or should they be disbanded?

    2. -do you think efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay should continue even though billions of dollars are being spent and collected in water bills on things like cleaning up sewage treatment plants and storm water runoff?

    3.- Do you support closing coal plants even though it will cost money to replace them with cleaner plants?

    4. Would you support mining uranium in Virginia?

    5. would you consider yourself a dedicated environmentalist or someone who is concerned about the environment or someone who think the issues in general are overblown.

    6. do you consider yourself an independent, a Republican or a Democrat?

    7. Would you prohibit all lobby money no matter which group from being legal in Virginia.

    I’d commission the above poll to a totally independent polling agency and let them ask whatever number it takes in total to yield a error level of 1/2%.

    I’d predict that a solid percentage of Virginians want to continue to clean up the Bay and our Rivers – and are willing to pay for it.

    What DVP is doing on the coal ash is inexplicable. If anyone ever put the dollar amount per month on each bill to clean them out – their whole PR effort would evaporate… that’s why the narrative continues to talk about billions of dollars instead.

  9. “Let’s investigate the pollsters for fraud and charge and prosecute them if we can legally do so. And call the the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) by the name they are, dishonest zealots.”

    I hate seeing this reactionary nonsense on this blog. It really lowers the bar.

    But in the end, this kind of thinking is no longer relevant. For decades, deep-pocketed utilities such as Dominion could rule the debate through massive political contributions and slick advertising campaigns (ever see one about how wonderful ACP is?). The Kochs can fund George Mason and other schools and institutes to pump out supposed “research” support their business interests.

    What is happening is that the green community is getting support from a wide, global range of people who realize that climate change is real. Consequently, they are drawing funding and expertise as never before and it has the Dominions of the world trembling. They can call on pollsters to research just as easily as the fossil fuel backers can. We can leave it to the Bacons of the world (likewise corporate funded) to nit pick about how the questions in the polls are worded.

    The CCAN poll results are striking and none of the commenters on this blog has shaken them There is great concern and distrust. Just ask some Blue Ridge homeowners how they feel about being strong-armed by the ACP people only to find that this great “need” for energy is really by a speculative gas plant that may or may not locate in Chesapeake or the like. WHy don’t you go out there any poll them yourself? I have driven around and talked to some myself.

    Look at millennials (I am the father of two. They don’t need much convincing that a serious climate crisis is upon us.

    Lastly, a whole bunch of fairly-well known scientists have signed a letter about Trump and climate change;

    So, who do you believe? Them? Or a real estate lawyer who is an expert on historic tax credits?

  10. To take a slightly different tack (hopefully not too close to windward) many folks like us immediately hang up on any phone call on any poll on any subject: politics, pipelines, light rail, you name it. I wonder if in fact the so called 3.5% margin of error always trotted out is way understated.

    I suspect our family is not alone in this aversion to polls/invasion of privacy.

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