A month ago, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) published the results of a poll that found that 55% of Virginians opposed Governor Terry McAuliffe in his backing of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). Only 28% of respondents endorsed the pipeline plans.
Yesterday the Virginia Chamber of Commerce released a poll showing almost diametrically opposite results; Virginians backed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (making no mention of the MVP) by 55% and opposing it by 29%.
Has popular sentiment toward the controversial pipelines shifted dramatically in the last month? Or did the pollsters just ask different questions?
Here’s what the CCAN asked:
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 no?
Here’s what the Chamber asked:
There is a proposal to build an underground natural gas pipeline called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline would bring domestically produced natural gas to families and businesses in Virginia and North Carolina to meet energy and electricity needs. The pipeline would begin in West Virginia, travel across Virginia, and end in Eastern North Carolina.
Neither poll is entirely bias-free. The CCAN did mention positive aspects of the pipelines but heavily emphasized the negatives while using loaded language such as “fracking” and “private corporate gain”; the poll also dragged Governor McAuliffe into the picture, inviting partisan reactions. The Chamber avoided the use of loaded language but reminded respondents of a positive aspect of the pipeline — bringing gas to “families and businesses in Virginia” — without noting any of the controversy.
If I were constructing a poll, I would have asked first if respondents had heard of the pipeline proposals. Only if they had would I ask them, without any leading information, if they supported or opposed the projects, forcing them to rely upon their own knowledge.
Even then, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the results. The economic, environmental and legal issues swirling around the pipeline are so complex and nuanced that only a tiny fraction of the electorate — less than 1%, I’d guess — has an informed opinion on the subject. Hell, I’ve been writing about the pipelines for more than a year, and there are layers of the controversy that I have yet to peel back.
That’s why the United States is a representative form of government, not a pure democracy. We put very few issues to a popular vote. We elect politicians and appoint bureaucrats to study complex issues and make difficult trade-offs. It’s an imperfect system at best, but it’s less odious than the alternatives. I don’t see the polls adding anything to the useful store of knowledge.