Earlier this morning, I came across a headline that was a bit shocking (to me): “Americans Support the Keystone XL Pipeline by Wide Margin.” All of the data I’d seen regarding polls of Americans showed that there certainly wasn’t a wide margin in support or against the pipeline. So, with my curiosity piqued, I clicked the article to find out that 67% (of the survey respondents) support building the pipeline. That still seemed a bit surprising, as, like I said, most polls I’d seen had stayed in the range of 45/55 or 55/45.
Upon getting to the actual survey, I scrolled to the question that led to the headline. Here’s the question that was read to survey respondents:
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 KeystoneX-L pipeline?
Do you see anything wrong with this question?
Let’s start with the idea that they’re telling respondents what supporters say and opponents say. If the respondent doesn’t really have a strong opinion about the question, they may prefer to identify with one group or the other (and they might even if they have a strong opinion!) One could argue that there’s a response bias present. There has been quite a bit of press about “America’s dependence on foreign oil.” So, someone might not want to oppose that viewpoint in a survey. That is, the respondent wouldn’t want to appear, (to the person conducting the survey), that they don’t think that reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil is as important as the environment.
Juxtaposing the dependence on foreign oil with environmental impact is a bit unfair. As I said in the previous paragraph, I’d bet that most people have heard/read something about the America’s dependence on foreign oil, but they probably don’t know very much about the environmental impact of oil. Now, that could be a messaging problem for the environmental movement, but there hasn’t been a compelling enough case made. (If there were, there certainly wouldn’t have been this many people who were “A-OK” with building the pipeline.)
Lastly, let’s actually examine this so called dependence on foreign oil. From the US Energy Information Administration:
The United States relied on net imports (imports minus exports) for about 40% of the petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) that we consumed in 2012. Just over half of these imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005. [Emphasis added]
In doing the math, 60% of the petroleum (oil) that the US consumed in 2012 was produced domestically — inside the US! In doing some more math, we’re told that just over half of the imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports are coming from countries outside of the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports could be coming from the Mideast and we already know that only 40% of the oil consumed in the US comes from imports. In fact, this same agency tells us just how much oil is imported from Persian Gulf countries: 29%. So, 29% of the imports (40%) is how reliant the US is on Mideast oil. Again, doing the math the total US consumption of Mideast oil: 11.6%. Does 11.6% sound like dependence?
If you recall the last line of the quote from the agency: “Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005.”
The next time you read survey data, I hope you’ll remember this post and consider just how construed the results may be.
[Note: The title of this post is a quote that was popularized by Mark Twain.]