Poll Finds Public Backs EPA, Not GOP, on Mercury

Amy Harder
June 19, 2012

A majority of Americans don’t support a Republican-backed measure the Senate is expected to vote on Wednesday that would nix a landmark environmental rule controlling air pollution from power plants. But they don’t support the regulation as is, either.

A new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll finds that 57 percent of the public supports a recently-finalized Environmental Protection Agency rule controlling mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants as long as companies are given more time to comply.

The poll found that a similar majority—55 percent—thinks EPA should be able to control greenhouse-gas emissions that most scientists agree cause climate change. Just slightly more than one-third of the public—36 percent—said Congress should stop EPA from such regulation. A federal court is expected to rule soon on whether the agency is within its right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.

The poll’s findings put a majority of Americans out of step with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is sponsoring a measure coming up for a vote on Wednesday that would nullify EPA’s mercury rule entirely. Just under 20 percent of survey respondents said the Senate should vote to uphold the rule as it stands now, while only 14 percent said the Senate should vote to get rid of it. The survey indicates that most Americans are seeking a middle ground between public-health protections and jobs—a fight that politicians often reduce to an “either/or” paradigm.

Congressional Republicans, along with the coal industry and conservative groups, are warning that if the rule is not overturned, it could cripple the coal industry—and eliminate many of the jobs that go along with it. Supporters of the rule, including most congressional Democrats, say those concerns are overblown and that the utilities are already shifting to natural gas. Coal accounts for 42 percent of U.S. electricity right now, but that percentage is quickly going down as natural gas, which accounted for 25 percent of the electricity pie in 2011, gains an increasingly large piece.

A bipartisan pair of moderate senators—Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., are floating a measure that would give companies six years to comply (up from the current three years). The Senate is not expected to vote on their bill, but the two are planning to write President Obama urging him to grant more time to comply. “I’m not sure if this new rule is perfect, but I think the biggest complaint I hear from people is whether they’re going to have enough time to comply in three years,” Pryor said recently.

Energy has been a policy area where Republicans have found real traction with the public because of a slow economic recovery and high gasoline prices. An earlier edition of the Congressional Connection Poll found overwhelming support for building the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue that House Speaker John Boehner has made a central part of the GOP agenda. In January, the poll found 64 percent of the public supporting the pipeline and only 22 percent opposing it.

Across the board among different party affiliations, regions, and demographics, this latest edition of the survey finds that a majority of respondents support the EPA mercury rule as long as companies have more time to comply. Even 57 percent of Republicans said they support the rule with more time allowed to comply.

Interestingly, a slightly larger percentage of respondents who identified themselves as independents said the Senate should uphold the rule as it stands now, compared with Democrats: 22 percent of independents support the mercury rule as is, while 20 percent of Democrats feel that way.

EPA has said that it will work with individual utilities to grant an additional year or two for compliance if necessary, but Pryor says that should be explicit for all companies.

“You’re probably in the end going to get the six years anyway, so go ahead and be up front about it,” Pryor said. “And let everyone budget and do what they need to do.”

Partisan differences were more prevalent when respondents were asked about EPA regulations controlling climate-change emissions. While 55 percent of the public thinks EPA should be able to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, fewer than half of Republicans—40 percent—thought so. Democrats and independents were more aligned in their positions supporting EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases: 65 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents were supportive.

Climate change, more so than any other environmental issue, has become polarized in the last couple of years. Propelled by conservative attacks on climate change and the tea party movement, conservative voters have become increasingly skeptical that climate change is happening. This trend is reflected in the survey’s findings.

The demographic most eager for Congress to stop EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions is white Republicans, 53 percent of whom favored obstructing the agency. Older Americans—especially men—also were more likely to oppose EPA in this area. A majority of all Republicans—52 percent—said Congress should not let EPA regulate greenhouse gases.

By comparison, just 16 percent of white Republicans said the Senate should overturn EPA’s rule controlling mercury and other pollution from power plants, and 55 percent said they support the rule if more time is given. Climate-change policy is all but dead in Congress, but the expected ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit could send the issue back to lawmakers.

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,002 adults by landline and cell phone from June 14-17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.