Opinion polls and public ‘support’ of the Keystone XL pipeline

Today, the Financial Post proclaimed that a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll indicates “overwhelming” support of the American people for the pending Keystone XL pipeline. That it does not.

Polling design greatly influences the nature and quality of responses. One of the most common ways in which responses are rendered unreliable is by framing a question in a way that misrepresents or omits key information that would significantly influence a respondent’s opinion. In this way, polls can be commissioned to produce justification for particular policies.

What makes the Financial Post’s interpretation of the poll incorrect is the way in which the question was presented:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?

What is particularly problematic about claiming public support for the pipeline based on this one poll question is that the public at large is relatively undereducated about the pipeline proposal to begin with – particularly with respect to the efficacy of arguments regarding the political, social, economic and environmental implications. This is partly the result of very aggressive PR, lobbying and election financing by the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, with the Koch brothers alone both directly and indirectly having spent millions of dollars on the 2012 election. In April 2013, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reported that despite their finding that fewer than half of respondents were following news about the Keystone XL pipeline, a majority still supported building it. This, despite the fact that according to the same poll, a large majority of respondents supported a U.S. effort to reduce global warming even if it has economic costs.

A critical piece of the puzzle is missing from the question posed in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll: the fact that the pipeline will not simply “carry oil from Canada to the United States”. It fails to mention the intention of refining and exporting the “oil”. What is described as oil is in fact crude bitumen, a thick, heavy and highly corrosive semi-solid substance. It differs from conventional oil in a number of important ways that, if respondents were aware of them, have the potential of producing different poll responses.

Because the question itself also offers oversimplified justifications for and against the pipeline, rather than simply asking the respondent’s opinion as it exists, it is suggestive. A respondent who is naturally unconcerned about environmental issues or even climate change is more likely to state that they support the pipeline especially when they are presented with an argument, whether well-founded or not, that it will create jobs and is intended to supply domestic markets. If on the other hand the poll followed up with a question asking whether respondents would be as supportive of the pipeline if they knew that the State Department’s environmental impact statement was authored by TransCanada (which is currently building the pipeline), the promises of job creation in comparable situations have not materialized and the refineries are strategically placed to service foreign markets, would respondents still indicate “overwhelming” support?

Figure into this picture also the magnitude and ubiquity of public resistance and the fact that over one million comments were registered voicing opposition to the pipeline. In the face of an unprecedented global issue – one that could affect every aspect of life on this planet – we can’t afford to rely on the dubious science of public opinion polls, which in ideal circumstances are not necessarily the greatest measure of public opinion. Far more important than trying to figure out what random people think is educating ourselves and discussing at length, from every angle, just what the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would really entail. Do we make this decision based on sheer popularity, or the merit of the arguments before us? That is the real question.


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