Pipelines, Protests and the Presidential Race

Brunswick Group survey finds bulk of voters see natural gas as climate-friendly – but only if industry does more to cut emissions

With 53 days until the Nov. 3 presidential election, Brunswick Group recently conducted an online survey of 1,000 U.S. registered voters to understand:

  • How do voters see natural gas in the context of the fight against climate change? As the solution? The problem? Or something else?
  • What do voters think about building new oil & natural gas pipelines following recent setbacks for such projects?
  • To what extent are the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest affecting voters’ thinking about climate change?
  • What do voters think of proposals to subsidize the purchase of low-emission vehicles and tax fossil fuels for their impacts on the climate?

Here is what we learned from the survey, which was conducted on Aug. 5-11, 2020.

  • Voters see a role for natural gas on climate – but think the industry needs to do more about emissions. Less than a third of U.S. voters – 31% - said natural gas “has a vital role” in addressing climate change and that wind and solar are not sufficient. A plurality – 46% – said natural gas “has a vital role to play in addressing climate change” but importantly, “only if the industry does a lot more to reduce emissions associated with its production and use.”
  • A slim majority of voters support giving states more power to block new oil and gas pipelines … Fifty-three percent of voters surveyed said state and local governments should have more authority to demand changes to fossil-fuel pipelines or to block them altogether.
  • … but don’t think it will help in the climate fight. Nearly six in ten voters surveyed said halting the development of oil and gas pipelines “will not help in the fight against climate change.”
  • Environmental and safety commitments on pipelines matter more to voters than economic ones. When asked what corporate commitments would make them more likely to support new pipelines, voters in both parties were more likely to choose those involving the environment and safety than those involving jobs.
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support Biden’s car-rebate plan – unless they’re told Biden supports it. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters – 66% - responded favorably when asked whether the U.S. government should give Americans rebates to trade in old, less-efficient cars for newer American vehicles. Republican support dropped to 43% when they were told that former Vice President Joe Biden supports it. Conversely, Democrats who were told Biden’s position were much more likely to support the idea (75%) than Democrats who weren’t told Biden’s position (60%).
  • Voters are less likely to see climate change as a crisis now than before the pandemic. A plurality of voters – 37% – said they see climate change as “a significant problem” rather than “a crisis” (31%). In December 2019, the reverse was true; a plurality of voters surveyed – 36% - said they saw climate change as a crisis, compared with 31% who described it as a significant problem.
  • Support for taxing carbon has waned as the economy has deteriorated. Forty-one percent of voters surveyed said a tax on emissions of carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas is “a good idea” - compared with 51% who described it that way in December 2019. Voters were also more likely to say they are “unsure” about the idea now (35%) than in December (27%). The percentage of voters who described taxing carbon as a “bad idea” – 24% - remained virtually unchanged from December (22%).

What does these findings mean for oil and gas companies? Here are our takeaways:

  • Most voters don’t favor banning natural gas use - but also don’t think the industry is doing enough about emissions. Producers that claim the industry has the emissions problem under control face an uphill battle with the public. 
  • Building oil and gas pipelines requires advocacy tailored to local concerns. Despite all the attention the “keep-it-in-the ground movement” has generated, most voters aren’t opposing oil & gas pipelines because they think stopping them will discourage fossil fuels. They’re more concerned about the local impacts of such projects; companies need to address these concerns to win voters over. 
  • Political signals polarize the electorate. Voters will be less likely to support a policy or initiative if it is advocated by a political party that they are not a member of. The industry will need to carefully develop champions from across the political spectrum to reach all voters. 
  • Support for taxing carbon emissions is shakier in a weak economy. With COVID-19 and the economy dominating voters’ concerns, a Biden administration – if it happens – is likely to prioritize those issues even as the party’s left flank pushes for action on climate. New regulations, mandates and subsidies tend to test better with voters than carbon taxes, offering Democrats an alternative path for tackling climate change. 

Download the full report of the findings: