Washington’s coal export terminal proposals are winning the battle for public opinion, a new survey finds. It shows half the state’s residents supporting coal exports and one-third opposed — but the results are nuanced.
The survey was conducted by the non-partisan firm Elway Research and first reported by the online news and opinion site, Crosscut. It asked state residents about two major coal terminals proposed in Washington — one near Bellingham at Cherry Point and one near Longview. They are among the five facilities proposed in the Northwest that would receive coal by the trainload (or the barge-full, under one proposal) and send it across the Pacific Ocean on Asia-bound ships.
Trains would carry the coal from mines in Wyoming and Montana, through Spokane and down along the Columbia, before heading up the I-5 corridor through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.
Elway Research surveyed over 400 people proportionally distributed around Washington state.
Overall, 50 percent support coal exports and 32 percent are opposed. But there’s more to it.
The survey went on to ask responders to specify how strongly they felt about the issue.
Were they “definitely opposed” or “inclined to oppose” versus “definitely in support” or “inclined to support” exporting coal?
“Most respondents could be considered “persuadable” on this issue, the report says. “Just 43% said they were decided (24% definitely for and 19% definitely against). Most respondents (58%) were only “inclined” one way or the other (26% to support, 13% to oppose) or undecided (19%).”
Stuart Elway, the president of Elway Research, told EarthFix that with with almost 6 out of 10 respondents saying their opinions aren’t firm on the coal export issue, “that suggests that there’s a more lively debate ahead than we’ve had thus far.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest support for coal exports came from counties that are not along the train route. The survey said the highest and most intense opposition to coal exports was in Seattle, despite the fact that King County supports coal exports overall.
In Bellingham - the community closest to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal - public opinion was split right down the middle. In Longview – the city closest to the proposed Millenium Bulk Terminal - more people were in support of coal exports.
The survey is just the latest to find people in the Northwest leaning in support of transporting coal through the region for export to Asia — but not yet settled on the issue.
An EarthFix-commissioned poll of the three-state region last summer found 55 percent residents of Oregon, Idaho and Washington in support of coal export proposals. Portland-based DHM Research polled 1,200 residents the three states. Within that majority, 39 percent said they were somewhat supportive and 17 percent said they strongly support transporting coal through the Pacific Northwest and exporting it to other countries from ports in Oregon and Washington.
The Elway Research poll found concern over increased tanker traffic from shipping coal was high. But overall, survey participants consistently ranked economic considerations over environmental concerns.
The poll went deeper:
It broke down the people surveyed into two groups: those who said they had only heard about exporting coal and those who said they knew a lot about it.
People who had only heard about the coal export terminals were more supportive of the idea. But the more people said they knew about the coal export proposals the less likely they were to support it.
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“As people learn more about environmental concerns then they start to have more reservations about the proposal,” says Elway. “That’s clearly where the debate’s going to be and so far the economic side has been carrying the day.”
Lastly, the poll asked people if they thought the environmental review of each terminal should cover the potential effects on communities all along the coal train route or just stick to the area immediately surrounding the terminals themselves.
In a rare case, people in Eastern Washington and Seattle agreed that yes, impacts along the whole coal transport corridor should be taken into consideration in the review.
The Army Corps has yet to decide whether it will conduct what’s called a programmatic review of the five coal export terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon.
Elway surveyed 407 Washington households Jan. 24-27. The results had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.