Despite eco-gains, Washington's pulling for coal

New poll results show that Washingtonians largely support proposed coal terminals along the state's coastline. In true measured Northwest form though, they want to know more.
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The road to a public coal port hearing.

New poll results show that Washingtonians largely support proposed coal terminals along the state's coastline. In true measured Northwest form though, they want to know more.

Coal-export terminals at Bellingham and Longview are supported by half of Washingtonians. At least according to the first comprehensive poll of public support for the controversial ports, released Wednesday. More than 400 households were polled for the survey, with a significant number of those polled still looking for more details on the plans.

The Elway Poll announced similar though slightly less supportive results than polling in recent months by terminal supporters: Overall, 50 percent supported the export terminals, 32 percent were opposed and 19 percent undecided. Only 60 percent of responders knew about the proposals, and half of them knew no details.

The most surprising result of the Elway Poll was respondents' support for a regional — rather than just localized — review of coal ports' impacts. Forty-eight percent were in favor, with 43 percent against. That's up sharply from a January poll for the pro-terminals group Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, which found that 77 percent of Washingtonians opposed a regional review.

In the end, the decision on the scope of the terminals' review will be made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in concert with Whatcom County (site of GPT), Cowlitz County (the site for Longview's proposed Millenium terminal) and the Washington Department of Ecology. Public testimony at seven statewide hearings on the Gateway Pacific Terminal will help drive their considerations, as will legal precedents and political pressures.

Breaking down his statistics, Pollster Stuart Elway noted a gap of only 9 percent (52-43 percent in support) between the sides among those who “knew a lot” about the proposals; but among those who had “only heard” of the proposals, the gap was much larger (56-28 percent, a 2-1 margin). The difference would indicate that opposition increases as citizens learn more about the terminals.

“These findings suggest that proponents have the advantage in the early framing of the discussion," Elway observed. "Since the more casually held opinions favor the coal ports, opponents will have a heavier lift to persuade people with those opinions to change their minds, while the proponents’ easier task will be to reinforce already favorable inclinations.”

From its beginning two years ago, the coal port debate has shaped up as a classic “jobs vs. environment” battle. The messaging is clearly working. The opinions of poll respondents closely reflect the emphasis of the campaigns on both sides of the debate. Backers of the terminals have stressed jobs and tax revenues for state and county coffers; 67 percent of poll respondents cited jobs and 59 percent cited tax revenues as issues of high importance to them in their decision.

Fifty-three percent cited coal ships and 48 percent cited trains as critical considerations. The issue of global climate change has been targeted by opponents, but was not directly addressed by Elway; a “China/Electricity” question showed concern by 41 percent of respondents.

Elway was the first pollster to push very far beyond a yes-no response, at least in results available to this reporter. Gallitin Public Affairs, a regional polling firm, found 56.6 percent support to 26.8 percent opposition in September. Portland pollster Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall reported a 55-27 percent split as early as July 2012.

The overall shift in support reveals gains on the part of opponents in the last several months; opposition was well below 30 percent until January, when it increased to 32 percent. In the same time period, support fell from about 56 percent to 50 percent. Both sides have ramped up public advocacy in the past several months, terminal supporters in a major broadcast advertising push and opponents in an intensive ground game under the umbrella of Power Past Coal.

Elway noted that the heaviest opposition came from responders along the rail line through western Washington: In Seattle, 49 percent were against the terminals; in North Puget Sound, 56 percent. Support was highest in areas off the rail lines: 59 percent of those who live in King County outside of Seattle favored the projects. Turnouts and intensity of comments at the statewide sessions were also greatest along the rail route.

“From the public’s point of view, this debate is just getting started,” Elway concluded. “While a substantial number have already staked out their positions, most Washington residents are not firmly committed to support or oppose the coal ports. While economic issues are currently more persuasive, the most desired information is about the environmental impacts, indicating an even more lively debate ahead.”

Elway surveyed 407 Washington households; the survey has a margin of error of 5 percent and was conducted Jan. 24-27. Read the full poll report here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.