By MARK BLANKENSHIP

CHARLESTON -- The last few weeks have seen the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Environmental and Public Works hold hearings to examine mountaintop removal and a Hollywood actress and other environmental activists arrested while protesting a mine site in Southern West Virginia.

As a result, the subject of coal mining and mountaintop mining are receiving significant media attention.

During the past several years I have measured, examined and studied the attitudes and opinions of West Virginians related to energy, coal mining and mountaintop mining thoroughly and likely more so than any other public opinion research company in America.

Moreover, as a firm, we have lived through the debate -- from Judge Haden's ruling to Darryl Hannah's arrest and all points in between -- we have been there. Said simply, we understand this subject.

Public perceptions of the energy and mountaintop mining issues are too complex to be fully analyzed or appreciated by a single survey, blog posting or news story. Such analysis requires a certain depth, appreciation of current events and trends and familiarity with public opinion on other issues related to this debate.

This posting is not intended to answer every question on the subject but serve as starting point in helping readers understand how the public views these issues.

For example, MBE conducted a well publicized survey of 601 registered voters (maximum sampling variation of +/-4 percent at 95 percent confidence level). Respondents were asked to name their greatest concern as a voter (the question was unaided). Over half (51 percent ) cited issues related to economic improvement or job creation. Less than 2 percent named mountaintop mining as their primary issue of concern. This is not to suggest mountaintop mining is an unimportant issue but clearly demonstrates how significant are economic issues.

The same survey finds that three in five voters oppose "a total ban on mountaintop mining in West Virginia" and 59 percent agree a total ban would have a "negative effect on West Virginia's economy." West Virginians place a premium on economic development and job creation.

Further, voters perceive mountaintop mining as a major contributor to the state's economy and job market. As a result, most oppose a ban of the practice. Additionally, an entire posting could be written (and perhaps will be) on other energy/economic issues such as energy independence and national security. Suffice it to say these issues recieve similar considerations and conclusions from voters as the basic economic issues described above.

Even though the issue may not be in the top four or five issues of greatest concern, voters are concerned about aspects mountaintop mining. More often than not, these voters indicate such concerns are related to waterway and stream (quality) issues compared to other issues such as aquatic or other wildlife or scenic beauty.

West Virginia voters are also pay close attention to other areas of the coal industry. For instance, worker safety is usually the top concern expressed by voters when it comes to coal mining. On the environment, West Virginians believe the coal industry has improved its environmental protection during the past 20 years or so, but expect the industry to continue to improve. Voters realize the importance of the industry to the economy but want West Virginia coal companies to lead the way in technological advancements that can sustain the economy for years to come -- areas such as coal liquefaction and clean coal technology. Lastly, natives of the mountain state want to be kept informed about the industry's plans and future in the mountain state.

In summary, most West Virginia voters perceive the coal industry -- including mountaintop mining -- from what seems to be a very moderate and reasonable perspective. They appreciate the contributions the energy industry makes to the economy, they remember the past sins of the coal industry but recognize the improvements it has made in terms of environmental protection and worker safety (and expect perpetual improvement), and hope the industry can remain viable for many years through the use of technology. They expect the industry to be good stewards of the land while providing good, safe, good-paying jobs and paying its fair share of taxes.

Blankenship is an experienced and highly regarded opinion researcher and communications strategist. Blankenship's expertise is sought by Fortune 500 companies, national trade organizations and associations, major law firms, hospitals, colleges and universities, elected officials, small businesses and others. During his career he has created, executed and managed numerous research and communications projects for clients facing difficult challenges, litigation, campaigns, image issues and crisis situations. His research and commentary has been used by, and appeared in, several national and regional media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Drudge Report and NBC among others. For more information please visit www.markblankenship.com or e-mail him at mark@markblankenship.com.

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