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Wyoming Coal

Justin Kjos, center, sits among an overflowing crowd on in 2015 during a pro-coal rally at the Campbell County Public Library in Gillette. Kjos had come to the rally and the subsequent Bureau of Land Management-hosted listening session following a night shift at the Antelope Mine south of Gillette, where he has worked for about a year. 

It often appears as though people’s beliefs — from clean energy and the environment to fossil fuel use and energy jobs — are separated by broad political gulfs. This division is reflected in newspaper coverage, call-in radio programs, political campaigns and the pummeling of energy policy by one side of the aisle or the other.

The political maelstrom, of not just the Trump administration but President Barack Obama’s second term in particular, has certainly brought the discord over traditional energy like coal and petroleum to the fore in Wyoming.

But a University of Wyoming professor says five years of research revealed that people’s actual values are quite different from what political coverage and political polling on energy policy have often revealed. People share specific and common aims in regards to what they want energy policy to do, said Mark Peterson, a UW marketing professor.

Moreover, people are sophisticated enough to juggle the tradeoffs between their values, if the research is sophisticated enough to look at both sides of that coin.

“People are thinking about these issues in a very similar way. It’s not Rachel Maddow’s tribe versus Sean Hannity’s tribe,” Peterson said, referring to two popular, and politically opposed, hosts of cable news shows. “It’s like they pretty much see the issues and are coming up with similar priorities, and we see that consistently across the different states.”

Peterson’s research on the subject was published this fall in Energy Policy, a monthly, peer-reviewed academic journal. Peterson applied the kind of data gathering and field work regularly applied in marketing research for branding and consumer preference to citizen preference on political action. He collaborated with SDR Consulting of Atlanta to generate and gather data.

In short, they tried to figure out what citizens wanted and how those desires were balanced against potential trade offs.

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Peterson started with a national approach.

Back in 2013, researchers put out a survey that had been crafted following study of the Democratic and Republican parties’ energy platforms and interviews with policy makers and experts in D.C.

When it comes to energy policy, four impacts percolated to the top, according to the people surveyed: environmental quality, how much energy costs, the creation of jobs and greenhouse gas emissions.

But Peterson also found at the time that energy policy decisions are happening less in Congress in recent years and more in either the executive branch — the White House and agencies like the Interior Department— or in states.

The study pivoted in about 2014. Researchers replicated the work they’d done on the national level for eight states where energy issues are central to public policy conversations. What started as one study became nine independent analyses.

Values remained consistent, but here was more variation at the state level in terms of priorities.

People polled in places like New York, North Carolina or Nevada ranked the importance of some energy outcomes differently than those in the Cowboy state.

“Wyoming is most concerned with traditional energy jobs, but less so for energy costs,” Peterson said in an interview with UW’s communications team. “Nevada is much more concerned about job creation for renewable energy and also is more focused on the environment.”

In states where energy costs a lot money for consumers, a policy’s impact on costs is much more important, Peterson said, referring to both Kentucky and Massachusetts, where energy is pricey but politics are vastly different, as examples. Meanwhile, in states like North Carolina and Minnesota, environmental impacts were most important, he said.

In Peterson’s view, state differences are not significant. A commonality of perspective lies in the overlap.

“The key implication here is that while small differences do exist for citizens identifying with differing political perspectives, the overall pattern of which policies are important and which are least important is striking,” Peterson said in the UW press release. “There is a surprising degree of agreement among citizens regarding preferences among energy policies that would reduce environmental harm while lowering energy costs.”

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Policymakers who researchers spoke to say they are bombarded with the results of polls and research on energy priorities. Much of that comes from lobbying groups and special interests, producing what Peterson called “free floating” data, which fails to discriminate or balance values.

The UW paper attempted to stand apart from that targeted research and provide policymakers with a clearer picture of what constituents from Wyoming to North Carolina want from sound energy policy, Peterson said.

“(When) everybody steps out of their uniform with regard to political affiliations, they get in this environment, this realm of making decisions with trade-offs,” Peterson said. “And, voila. A lot of their responses are very similar.”

Of course policies to achieve one end can hurt another. Friction in Wyoming, for example, appears in regard to environmental policy at the national level. The Clean Power Plan, which was designed to address greenhouse gas emissions, was expected to decimate coal jobs. It was widely unpopular in the Cowboy State.

But Peterson said he remains encouraged. Despite the appearance of various camps on these energy issues, the research both nationally and in eight different states revealed that people are far more reasonable than they are given credit for. That reality could free up politicians who are cautiously adhering to political values rather than the more reasonable perspectives citizens want, he said.

“There is room for compromise,” Peterson said. “It’s not like the citizens are wildly opposed on energy issues. They are actually meeting in the middle or converging on what would appear to be reasonable outcomes for energy policy. Now it’s up to the policy makers and their staff to get some things done.”

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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