The U.S. is a rising energy power with soaring oil and gas production and lots of big decisions to make about pipelines, fracking, the future of wind and solar power, and how to tackle climate change.
But the public may not be paying much attention.
Recent polls show that Americans are largely disengaged from the fierce energy debates that embroil the capital and that many people know few details — or even the larger trends — about where the U.S. gets its energy and how much it costs. Most don’t know that U.S. energy production is going up, and a large majority think the nation’s biggest oil supplier is Saudi Arabia. (The correct answer: Canada.) And some polls reveal apparent inconsistencies in people’s opinions on big energy questions: They want more natural gas production but oppose fracking, the technology that produced the U.S. gas boom. They like wind and solar energy but don’t want to pay extra for them.
That’s no way to make smart policy, some energy experts say.“It’s a no-brainer — the more people understand where energy comes from, where it goes and how energy markets work, the better they can develop informed views on energy-related policies and controversies like Keystone XL, hydraulic fracturing or climate change,” said Margot Anderson, executive director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project.Carol Browner, the former top climate and energy adviser to President Barack Obama, calls energy “an issue that most people, as the president likes to say, only think about when their lights don’t turn on.”“So yeah, I think it does hinder everyone’s ability to have an informed debate when people don’t necessarily know the basics,” she said.
A recent poll by the University of Texas at Austin found that only 14 percent of Americans said they read, see or hear about energy issues daily, down from 21 percent a year ago. In September, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 48 percent knew U.S. energy production has been up in recent years, and only 34 percent attributed that mainly to more oil and natural gas production. The lack of public engagement doesn’t shock people in the energy industry. “Well, we’ve known this for a long time,” said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. The trade group used Harris Interactive to conduct three annual energy IQ surveys — the last one four years ago — and found common misconceptions still linger. “That’s troubling because people on any side of the debate can say anything, and if folks don’t know the reality, they accept it,” Felmy said. “And that’s one of the reasons why we spend so much time in advertising and educational outreach.”Marty Durbin, president and CEO of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said he’s not surprised either and “almost look[s] at it from our standpoint as an opportunity.”“Yes, there’s more the industry needs to do” to spread its message that the U.S. has an “overall abundance” of energy resources, he said. “I also think there’s a certain point where the industry is doing all it can. Let’s face it, we’re not always the best messenger.”Of course, lacking a grasp on the wonky details doesn’t keep people from having strong opinions on energy.
People know what they don’t like — such as the oil and gas industry, which ranked dead last in a Gallup popularity contest conducted in August 2012. People have been blaming oil companies for high gasoline prices since the 1970s. They also readily blame the president — whoever happens to be in office at the time — when the price at the pump starts soaring. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in March 2012 found 65 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of gasoline prices, a time when the news media were rife with inaccurate predictions that motorists would be paying $4 to $6 a gallon by summer. Former President George W. Bush got even worse ratings from those news outlets’ polls in 2005 and 2006. But gas prices are largely controlled by a global market that is affected by supply and demand, economic volatility, unrest in the Middle East and other factors beyond the direct control of any president. “The president doesn’t have the magic button that can raise or lower gas prices,” said Avery Ash, manager of regulatory affairs at AAA.
Polls also indicate that most people don’t know what fracking is — and those who know don’t like it — although they want to see more natural gas produced.About 40 percent of people in the University of Texas survey said they were familiar with hydraulic fracturing. Of those, only 38 percent support its use.