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Survey says: the American public is souring on coal

Opinion on energy topics is usually stable, but on coal, it’s shifting quickly.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Moves To Repeal Clean Power Plan George Frey/Getty Images

The US coal industry is in terminal decline. Though it is flailing about desperately for subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory loopholes — the kinds of political favors that have kept it afloat for so long — at this point it is merely delaying the inevitable.

What’s more, coal’s decline is not leading to any of the dire effects coal boosters warned: The lights are still on; grid reliability is fine; power prices are as low as ever.

The speed with which coal has lost status and position in US energy markets is startling. Most of it happened in the past 10 years! But do Americans know US coal is dying? Are they ready to leave it behind?

A new survey of US public opinion sheds some fascinating light on the subject. Long story short: While Americans still seem lukewarm on reducing fossil fuel production in general, and they are ambivalent and uncertain about natural gas, they are rapidly turning against coal.

The survey in question is the National Survey on Energy and Environment (NSEE), an annual snapshot of US opinion put together by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. It’s been around for 10 years now, and as part of its 10-year anniversary, it is releasing a series of reports tracing changes in public opinion over the years. The latest, on fossil fuels, was just released. Let’s take a look.

Americans are beginning to find the end of coal thinkable

It wasn’t until spring of 2016 that the NSEE first asked about a purposeful phaseout of coal. (Before that, honestly, it seemed like an absurd idea. Like I said, things are changing quickly.) At that point, though opinion was sharply split by partisan affiliation, not even a majority of Democrats supported a phaseout.

By fall 2017, opinion had shifted substantially on both sides of the aisle.

NSEE: public opinion on coal NSEE

“In just a year, the number of Americans who say they strongly support coal phase-out increased 11 percentage points from 18% in 2016 to 29% in 2017,” NSEE reports, “while the number who strongly oppose the policy commensurately decreased 11 points, from 31% in 2016 to 20% in 2017.”

Loyalty to coal is declining even where it most concentrated: Between 2016 and 2017, strong support for a phaseout rose by 13 percent, and overall support by 9 percent, in states with active coal mines. Strong opposition among Republicans fell by 14 percent.

Meanwhile, strong support among Democrats rose by the same amount. Majorities of Democrats (56 percent) and independents (54 percent) now support a coal phaseout. It is on the political table.

Incidentally, Canada, which uses much less coal than the US, is further along in public opinion. (The report has several “Canada Corners,” boxes containing fun Canada facts, which is adorable.) Even in Canadian provinces with coal mines, the public is for a phaseout:

NSEE: public opinion on coal in canada NSEE

Not surprisingly, support for tighter regulations on coal plants in the US is substantially tinged by partisan loyalties. Back in 2013, the NSEE asked two different groups two versions of the same question about coal regs, only one of which mentioned Obama by name.

When Obama was mentioned, support jumped among Democrats and strong opposition jumped even more among Republicans.

NSEE: public opinion coal regs NSEE

Public support for “clean coal” seems to have waned as well, at least in intensity. Though a bare majority has always expressed support for government programs that boost clean coal, since 2008, “strong support has fallen 15 percentage points over the decade, and opposition has ticked up by 9 points.”

That’s been true across both parties — in fact, the most dramatic drop was in Republican strong support (17 percent). Interestingly, that dynamic is not appreciably different in states with active coal mines.

Support for leaving fossil fuels in the ground is ... mixed

In recent years, climate activists have organized around the slogan of “keep it in the ground,” making opposition to new fossil fuel extraction and transportation a core element of the climate movement.

The movement gained enough prominence that NSEE asked about it in 2016. A bare majority of Democrats support reducing fossil fuel extraction, but support falls short of a majority among independents and Republicans.

NSEE: public opinion on leave it in the ground NSEE

“While half (50%) of Democrats and 45% of Independents would decrease fossil fuel extraction,” NSEE reports, “a plurality (44%) of Republicans said they would make no change to the amount of fossil fuels the U.S. removes from the ground.”

Still, for an insurgent movement, that’s a lot to work with.

Americans are ambivalent about natural gas, if divided on fracking

The numbers on natural gas are quite revealing. At least in and of itself, natural gas seems oddly depoliticized. (Though the same is not true of fracking, as we’ll see below.)

There has been very little change in opinion about natural gas power plants between 2015 and 2017. And there is very little difference among political parties, regions of the country, or levels of belief in climate change.

NSEE: public opinion on natural gas NSEE

What’s striking is that both surveys, 2015 and 2017, “saw relatively high rates of respondents volunteering that they are unsure of their opinion, suggesting many respondents may be conflicted on whether natural gas is a good or bad thing.”

Natural gas is in an odd place, politically. It is killing coal and reducing US carbon emissions, which pleases the left. It is making the US a geopolitical fossil fuel giant, which pleases the right. Opposition is fragmented. Somehow, natural gas has wormed its way into a safe space, outside of normally contentious energy politics.

However, fracking — the process of getting the natural gas out of the ground — is quite controversial. On the 2015 NSEE, 34 percent of Americans supported it, while 39 percent opposed. Democrats were roughly twice as likely as Republicans to oppose. Overall, 53 percent believed fracking has negatively affected the environment, while 45 percent believed it has had a positive effect on the economy.

Pipelines have become much more polarized

Over the years, the NSEE has found “majority support for both pipelines in general and for the more controversial Keystone XL Pipeline in particular.”

The 2013 NSEE found that 62 percent of Americans support new pipelines in general, while the 2014 NSEE found that support for Keystone XL (45 percent) outweighed opposition (22 percent). That remained roughly true even given a number of different “lead-in questions” raising doubts about the pipeline.

NSEE: public opinion on pipelines NSEE

The NSEE doesn’t offer any numbers more recent than 2014, but there’s evidence that opinion on the subject has shifted since then, mainly through the magic of polarization.

Pew: public opinion on Keystone XL Pew

For instance, Pew Research shows that opposition to Keystone XL has recently reached a plurality. The shift has come almost entirely through a divergence in partisan opinion: “The partisan gap over Keystone XL is stark,” Pew writes. “About three-quarters (76%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor building the Keystone XL pipeline; about as many Democrats (74%) are opposed.” Opinion on the pipeline has fallen in line with polarized opinion on climate change.

It seems that the climate campaign against Keystone XL has successfully convinced co-partisans that the pipeline is to be opposed. That’s probably the best any campaign can do these days.

Oh, and, Canada Corner: Though most of the economic benefits of Keystone XL would accrue to Canada, “the [2014] Canadian survey found more Canadians opposed (44%) than supported (38%) building the Keystone XL pipeline — the opposite of the US data.” (A more recent poll on Keystone in Canada found “33% support, 25% oppose, and 25% say they can support the project under certain conditions.”)

Coal is hosed

Public opinion on energy issues tends to be fairly stable and nonpartisan. Generally, the public likes energy and wants more of it, no matter the source; it dislikes pollution and wants less of it, no matter the source. Battles over individual sources and policies tend to play out on the margins.

Against that backdrop, it’s notable that opinion on coal is shifting so quickly and dramatically. Perhaps the public is beginning to notice that as coal is dying, everything seems ... fine. Natural gas and renewables are covering it.

So if you don’t need the dirty stuff, why not phase it out?