Solid Energy Market Research Under Scrutiny

The Coal Action Network Aotearoa today accused Solid Energy of carrying out dubious market research to give the impression that there is massive support for coal – and is considering laying a formal complaint at the company’s refusal to release the full results of the research.

The following letter has been sent to Don Elder demanding answers….

Don Elder
Solid Energy
15 Show Place, Addington
Christchurch,
8024
New Zealand

18 April 2012

Dear Mr Elder

I am writing to in relation to your market research over the last three years.
We are very concerned about:

a) Solid Energy’s statements in your annual reports about public support for coal
b) The nature of the survey undertaken by Colmar Brunton on behalf of Solid Energy which appears to us to be leading the respondent towards supporting coal.

In Solid Energy’s annual reports for 2009, 2010, 2011 you have printed statements quoting research by Colmar Brunton. (http://www.solidenergy.co.nz/index.cfm/1,186,393,0/Annual-Report.html):

• 2009 on page two of your annual report, a statement saying:
“Almost two thirds [of New Zealanders] think we should make greater use of our coal resources… and 84% are more positive if technology is used to reduce pollutant emissions.”
Research carried out for Solid Energy by Colmar Brunton from 14 April to 11 May 2009 (1,000 respondents; margin of error +/- 3%).”

• You have published similar results in its annual reports in 2010 and 2011 and, no doubt, will do so again this year, based on the questions in the telephone survey experienced by one of our members in recent weeks.

The following clauses in the Market Research Society of New Zealand’s Code of Practice for market researchers are relevant here:

From MRSNZ Code of Practice, page 5

Article 11 – Publishing findings

(b) Where any of the findings of a research project are published by the client, the latter shall be asked to consult with the researcher as to the form and content of publication of the findings. Both the client and the researcher have a responsibility to ensure that published results are not misleading.

(c) Researchers shall always be prepared to make available the technical information necessary to assess the validity of any published findings.

(d) Researchers shall not allow their name to be associated with the dissemination of conclusions from a market research project unless they are adequately supported by the data.

I have looked at both your website and that of Colmar Brunton and I cannot find any details about the research mentioned in the Solid Energy Financial Report. I understand that you have also declined to give the research to members of the Commerce Select Committee.

My questions in relation to Solid Energy’s annual reports are:
1) I would like to receive the technical information in order to assess the validity of the published findings and would also like the information to be made publicly available. This would include information about the method for the survey, sampling method, sample size, full verbatim wording of the questions asked and the context in which the question was asked (for example if one statement out of a number of statements).

2) Did you consult Colmar Brunton before publishing the results in your Annual Reports?

3) Did Colmar Brunton agree with the summaries you published?

We have concerns that the polls included leading questions based on two incidents:

a) One of our members was called two weeks ago in a market research survey about Solid Energy. Attached is the set of questions asked in the survey, as taken down at the time by the person surveyed.

b) In 2009 a Colmar Brunton researcher called another of our members, Cindy Baxter, for a similar survey for Solid Energy and the questions were in a similar vein. She complained at the time to Colmar Brunton’s then Chief Executive about the set of questions because they did not agree with Q20 in particular (see appendix).

The objections at the time were around the validity of the statement in Q20, because it was patently untrue. It stated that technology been developed to “reduce emissions to near zero”. However, that technology had not, at the time, been developed to commercial readiness, still hasn’t, and all the reports around it show how it would be so expensive as to be unlikely to be commercially ready for years – certainly not in time to stop runaway climate change.

I am also concerned about the leading nature of the questions in the 2009 and 2012 surveys and that the questions assume some knowledge of the subject in order to answer adequately. The statements present only positive statements about coal, some of which cannot be proved or quantified. Without the technical detail to back-up the survey, the reader of the Solid Energy Annual Reports has no way of judging for themselves the validity of the statements.

I would very much appreciate an answer to the three questions that we have asked in relation to the Code of Practice as shown on the website of the Market Research Society. Not releasing the full research we are requesting is, in our view, a breach of those codes of practice.

Regards

Kristin Gillies
Appendix 1
Questions from recent survey with a Coal Action Network Aotearoa member as a respondent

In the 2012 survey, a set of questions was asked around the mining of lignite in Southland.

Answer with the following scale:
Agree Strongly
Agree
Neutral
Disagree
Disagree Strongly

Do you agree or disagree with:
1. Solid energy developing the lignite resource in Southland?
…if it was done without increasing carbon emissions?
…if the earth was returned to its natural state after?
…if it lowered the price of diesel?
…if it created jobs?
…if the local community got special benefits from it?
…if it increased the New Zealand standard of living?
…if it benefited the NZ economy?
…if it was done by a New Zealand company?
…if most of the money raised stayed in New Zealand?

Other questions included:
* Are you aware Solid Energy is planning to develop the lignite resource in Southland?
* Are you aware lignite can be used to make diesel/fertiliser?
* Are you aware lignite can be used to heat homes?

Question asked of Cindy Baxter in 2009

Question 20: “using coal to produce energy can release pollutants into the air. Are you aware that technology can be used to reduce the release of these pollutants to near zero?”

The questions then went on to ask a series, much like the ones above, preceded by the statement:

“Given that technology can be used to reduce the release of these pollutants to near zero…”

This set of questions appears to correlate to this statement in Solid Energy’s 2009 Annual report (page 2):

“Almost two thirds [of New Zealanders] think we should make greater use of our coal resources… and 84% are more positive if technology is used to reduce pollutant emissions”

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