Do voters really oppose electric car subsidies?

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Polling experts are questioning a conservative energy group’s surveys that show voters in key states opposing a federal tax credit for electric vehicles.

The dispute comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are battling over the EV subsidy’s future.

At issue are recent surveys of 800 likely voters in Maine, Michigan and South Dakota that were commissioned by the nonprofit American Energy Alliance (AEA) and carried out by the firm MWR Strategies.

The surveys relied on common talking points used by critics of the EV tax credit, which allows people who purchase a qualifying plug-in hybrid or electric car to receive up to $7,500 after filing their tax returns.

The survey of Michigan voters, for example, stated: “About half of all electric vehicles sold in the United States are sold in California. The citizens of the State of Michigan should not help pay for those who buy electric vehicles in California.”

Around 76% of Michigan survey respondents agreed with that statement, while 14% disagreed and 10% said they didn’t know or refused to answer the question.

The survey also stated: “One of the companies lobbying for an electric vehicle tax credit is General Motors. According to the IRS, GM paid no federal taxes in 2017. It is not right for GM to ask taxpayers for a tax credit.”

Roughly 73% of Michigan survey respondents agreed with that statement, while 17% disagreed and 10% didn’t know or refused.

In addition, the survey pointed out that the average EV owner who claims the federal tax credit earns more than $150,000 per year. That elicited more disapproval of the subsidy from respondents.

Tom Pyle, president of AEA, said the survey demonstrated the importance of educating voters about the EV tax credit and its association with wealthy Californians.

“To me, it comes down to an education thing,” he said. “When voters have basic information about this stuff, they recognize it for what it is: a wealth transfer to wealthy individuals in the state of California.”

But Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, blasted the surveys as some of the most biased polling he has ever encountered.

“This is so biased as to practically be a push poll,” Maibach said. “They are giving people information to move their opinion in one direction, specifically to being against EVs.”

He added, “They’re clearly intending to elicit a response they’re looking for, as opposed to a response of what people actually think. It’s just shocking to me that a professional survey firm would be willing to put their name on it.”

Maibach also took issue with the phrasing of the question about General Motors Co., noting that individuals — not auto companies — can claim the subsidy.

Ben Jervey, a researcher with KochsvsClean.com, a watchdog project that investigates Koch network campaigns against clean energy policy, questioned AEA’s impartiality.

As a 501(c)(4) organization, AEA is not required to disclose its funding sources. But it has received millions of dollars from groups affiliated with the fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers, including a $350,000 gift from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers in 2017, according to those groups’ tax returns.

“We know that the American Energy Alliance receives the majority of its revenue from oil and gas interests,” Jervey said. “So it’s clearly a highly biased poll that is intended to produce certain results. This is a prime example of how oil companies and petroleum refiners will purchase talking points to protect their profits.”

Pyle strongly pushed back against this criticism.

“There’s nothing in the survey that’s misleading,” he said. “I’m not concerned about what the greens think about our work. Never have been.”

He added, “If they want to get into a battle of who’s funding who, that just shows they’re worried more about what we’re saying. They’re basically admitting that they’re concerned about the message and want to try to attack the messenger.”

Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist and president of MWR Strategies, couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday.

Battles on the Hill

The surveys come as lawmakers on Capitol Hill duke it out over the future of the EV tax credit.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has introduced legislation to kill the EV tax credit and impose a new fee on EV drivers.

The oil and gas industry has waged a covert campaign to drum up support for the measure, known as the “Fairness for Every Driver Act” (Climatewire, March 4).

In the opposite camp, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking to expand the credit and shield it from such attacks.

The “Driving America Forward Act,” from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), would lift the 200,000-vehicle cap for the credit. It has received support from environmental groups as well as auto industry trade associations (E&E News PM, Sept. 25).

Stabenow has acknowledged that it would be difficult to move the bill in the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She has expressed hope that the measure will instead hitch a ride on a broad tax extenders package.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Finance Committee, is considering whether to include the EV tax credit in such a package, which would also address the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy.

Pyle said he hopes Grassley takes note of the surveys.

“What we’re suggesting is it wouldn’t be wise to expand the EV tax credit,” he said. “We would certainly prefer for it to go away, but we would not like to see it not expanded in any tax extenders package.”

Reelection fights

The surveys also took aim at several co-sponsors of the “Driving America Forward Act” who face tough reelection fights.

In particular, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020.

Collins, a moderate, has at times bucked President Trump’s agenda. But she angered many progressives by voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, despite the sexual assault allegations against him.

Sara Gideon, a Democrat and the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, announced in June that she would challenge Collins, citing the Kavanaugh vote as a main motivation. The race is expected to be the most expensive in Maine’s history.

In the survey of 800 likely Maine voters, 74% of respondents agreed with the statement “Electric cars might be a good choice for some, but those purchases should not be paid for by other consumers.”

Pyle said the surveys show Collins is out of touch with her constituents and faces a tough battle for a fifth term.

“She should look at the polling to see her constituents don’t think they should be paying for people who buy electric vehicles,” Pyle said of Collins.

“She’s not going to out-Democrat a Democrat with respect to subsidies,” he added. “So she’s probably better off not signing on to this massive wealth transfer.”

But Maibach, the George Mason professor, expressed doubt that the surveys would sway the race, which hinges more on Trump.

Another vulnerable backer of the “Driving America Forward Act” is Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, one of two Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Trump carried in 2016.

Still, Peters faces less of an uphill battle than Collins. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates his race as “likely Democratic.”

Reporter Timothy Cama contributed