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Polling Experts Bash Koch-Funded Electric Car Survey as 'Highly Biased' and 'Highly Misleading'

Politics
Polling Experts Bash Koch-Funded Electric Car Survey as 'Highly Biased' and 'Highly Misleading'
Senior Airman Alec Cope plugs in a hybrid vehicle at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts on June 2, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo / Linda LaBonte Britt

By Dana Drugmand

Fossil fuel interests appear intent on swaying public opinion about the electric vehicle tax credit, based on recent polling on the policy. A deeper look at these efforts reveals oil and gas funding behind the groups conducting the polls and blatant bias in the polling methodology, according to experts.


Survey results commissioned and publicized by the American Energy Alliance (AEA) seem on their surface to indicate that a majority of respondents are not thrilled about subsidizing EVs purchased by other consumers, particularly wealthy Americans. However, according to polling experts who reviewed the survey for DeSmog, the questions were designed to solicit a certain response and produce results to serve a predetermined narrative that supports the oil industry's interests. According to polling expert Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, the surveys relied on "highly biased questions designed to elicit highly misleading answers."

Who Is Behind the 'Highly-Biased' Anti-Electric Vehicle Poll?

The organization that commissioned the surveys, AEA, is funded by oil interests including the Koch network and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the nation's leading trade group of oil refiners. The group is touting these findings from recent polls in Maine, Michigan and South Dakota, saying the results are consistent with those from surveys they commissioned in nine other states.

"This is further evidence that efforts to compel taxpayers, ratepayers, workers, and consumers to pay for the choices of others, and the preferences of government bureaucrats, are doomed and will lead directly to voter resistance," said Thomas Pyle, president of AEA. "The citizens of Maine, Michigan, and South Dakota see an expansion of the electric vehicle tax credit exactly for what it is: a giveaway to rich Californians and large, already prosperous corporations."

Pyle's statement, and the survey questions themselves, are loaded with misleading information. The tax credit's stated purpose is to lower the cost of electric vehicles, which is critically important for low-to-moderate income Americans. Automakers don't claim the credit, consumers do, including those who opt to lease an electric vehicle. But Pyle appears to disregard these points in an attempt to drum up opposition to the policy.

Pyle's approach makes sense within the context of his and his organization's backgrounds and former lobbying clients, as well as those of the firm conducting the surveys.

The American Energy Alliance is a 501(c)(4) organization — meaning it is not required to disclose its donors — and is the advocacy arm of the Institute for Energy Research. IER supports "free-market energy and environmental policy" and was formed in 1989 from a predecessor organization founded by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch. Donors to IER include oil and gas interests such as the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and Charles Koch Institute as well as ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute. The AFPM oil refiners trade group is also a major donor, having given three times as much to the American Energy Alliance compared to any other organization, according to the most recently available tax records.

Thomas Pyle, president of IER and AEA, is a former lobbyist for Koch Industries, the largest privately owned energy company in the U.S. Pyle has also lobbied for the Big Oil trade association formerly called the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, which is now AFPM. Both Koch Industries and the members of AFPM like Exxon make billions in profits from fueling internal-combustion engine vehicles, so policies supporting vehicles not fueled by their products, like the EV tax credit, threaten their bottom lines.

MWR Strategies, the firm conducting the surveys on the EV tax credit, is a research, communications and lobbying company whose clients include electric utility and energy companies with clear fossil fuel interests. For example, TECO Energy — owner of natural gas businesses in Florida and New Mexico — paid MWR $80,000 just this year. Among other energy and utility corporations paying MWR are ENGIE, Public Service Enterprise Group/PSEG Power, and Southern Company. Notably, Koch Industries has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the firm from 2008 to 2016, OpenSecrets data reveals. Other petroleum corporations and trade associations like El Paso Corp. and AFPM's predecessor National Petrochemical & Refiners Association have previously retained MWR.

Michael McKenna, president of MWR Strategies, is an energy lobbyist who led Trump's Energy Department transition team, and, as E&E reported, is "well-known in Republican energy circles" and was recently tapped to serve in the White House as an advisor to the president. McKenna previously worked at several other research and communications firms including Luntz Research Companies, founded by notorious climate denier Frank Luntz (who only recently announced he was wrong and has shifted his views).

Mike McKenna of MWR Strategies / CleanSkiesNews / YouTube screenshot

The MWR Strategies website does not have information about current work, rather the "current" section is a list of links to polling on climate and energy topics dating back to 2008 and earlier. These "polls" are structured in much the same way as the polls about EV tax credits, with questions focused on the (debunked) premise that addressing climate change is too expensive and even asking about the "certainty" of climate science (exploiting scientific uncertainty has been a key strategy of the fossil fuel industry's well-documented disinformation campaign).

MWR's polling strategy appears to be posing misleading questions, some with inaccurate information, in order to garner a particular response. For example, in the firm's March 2008 poll on global warming, one question asked which is more important, addressing global warming or reducing reliance on foreign energy sources — which is a false choice given that renewable energy sources like solar and wind would do both. In another survey from 2006 on energy, the statement "liquefied natural gas cannot explode like gasoline" was posed to respondents. This is also misleading because while the liquid itself won't explode, blasts can occur at LNG sites and associated vapors are combustible.

How MWR's EV Tax Credit Survey Misleads Respondents and Deceives the Public

In the recent surveys MWR conducted on the EV tax credit, one of the statements that respondents could agree or disagree with was, "It is not right for GM to ask taxpayers for a tax credit." General Motors is lobbying to extend and expand the electric car tax credit, but the automaker would not actually claim the credit — consumers would.

Another question claims that "the average buyer of an electric car makes more than 150 thousand dollars per year," a claim that is demonstrably false. When pressed by DeSmog for a citation or clarification, McKenna responded through a media relations contact, pointing to the often-debunked Manhattan Institute report by Jonathan Lesser called "Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies."

That report actually cites a 2013 UC-Davis study that examined "the characteristics of 1,200 households who actually purchased a new plug-in vehicle in California during 2011-2012," finding that "46 percent of electric car drivers in California alone had incomes above $150,000." This study, now six years old, does not translate to the statement regarding an "average buyer" that was presented in the survey. In effect, the survey question was premised on a falsified statistic from an outdated data set that only included California.

Excerpt of misleading questions from the MWR poll about consumer attitudes toward the electric car tax credit.

Polling and communication experts told DeSmog that these EV tax credit surveys should not be considered legitimate measures of public opinion. Many of the questions are actually statements that respondents can agree or disagree with. But according to polling expert Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell and director of the Center for Public Opinion, "Agree/disagree items are not a legitimate way to determine public opinion on policy issues."

"There is a well known response bias for respondents in surveys to agree to prompts in questions structured as agree/disagree items," he said. "This is known to survey researchers by the term 'response acquiescence.' In order to get at how respondents actually feel, you should allow respondents to pick from balanced options. I wouldn't put much stock in the agree/disagree items in this survey."

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, also said these surveys were designed to be misleading.

"Unbiased survey questions intended to elicit people's opinions about or support for a proposition (such as a proposed public policy) can be done in one of two ways. The proposition can be stated in neutral, factual terms with or without the leading arguments both for and against the proposition," he explained. "The questions on AEA surveys did not state the facts about the propositions, but instead made negative claims about the consequences of the propositions. Therefore, people were responding to the negative statements made about the proposition, not the proposition itself."

Ed Maibach, a climate change communication researcher at George Mason University. greenmanbucket / YouTube screenshot

This response to negative statements gives the misleading appearance that there is little public support for the EV tax credit. "Elected officials who are concerned about voter opinion should probably think twice before expanding favorable tax treatment for electric vehicles. Voters in each of the 12 States we examined are very skeptical of them," MWR's McKenna said in a statement about the poll.

But as Maibach explained, this is probably not true. "The poll done for AEA was not intended to determine how people actually feel about public policies in support of EVs, rather it was done to give the impression that people do not support use of public resources to support EVs," he said.

Maibach's Center for Climate Change Communication, along with Climate Nexus and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, did a poll in July of 820 registered voters in Michigan on their attitudes towards various climate policies. According to the results, "Michigan voters favor expanding the tax credit for those who purchase EVs — close to two-thirds (66 percent) agree the federal tax credit for EVs should extend beyond each manufacturer's first 200,000 vehicles."

Pyle, AEA's president and former Koch lobbyist, told E&E News he stands by his surveys finding little support for the tax credit, adding that he is "not concerned about what the greens think about our work."

But Maibach pushed back against this statement. "The problem with his poll is not that 'the greens' don't like the findings," he said. "The problem is that his findings are bogus, because they asked highly biased questions designed to elicit highly misleading answers."

Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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