Americans Don’t Grasp Energy Issues

With a wealth of information at our fingertips, I should be astonished about the lack of information most Americans have about relevant energy issues. Unfortunately, yesterday’s article on Politico.com wasn’t nearly as surprising as I’d like it to be.  The average American doesn’t know what’s going on in the energy sector.  Miley Cyrus garners more attention on the major news networks than…the news.

Politico’s article discusses the recent polls that show that while debates surrounding energy get heated in the capital, many people don’t even know the large trends in the energy industry, much less the details of the cost or even the source of the energy in the U.S.

“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”. – Polls show energy doesn’t spark Americans’ interest, Politico.com, Oct. 28 2013

As a matter of fact, recent polls show that a large majority believe that Saudi Arabia is the United States largest oil supplier. (Hint: That’s not right.  It is Canada.)  That isn’t the only place that their knowledge is a bit…lacking.  They, mostly, don’t realize that U.S. energy production is on the rise either.  When it comes to the big energy questions there are some…inconsistencies.  Polls show that they want more natural gas production.  They see it as a cleaner source of energy, but they hate fracking.  The dots aren’t connecting the U.S. gas boom with the method used for extracting the natural gas.

The University of Texas at Austin did a poll recently and it found that a year ago 21 percent of Americans said that they read, saw , or heard about energy issues daily.  That’s down to only 14 percent this year.  Pew Research Center did a poll in September, and found that only 48 percent knew that the United States has seen a rise in energy production in recent years.  Only 34 percent knew that could be attributed to oil and gas production.

Those of us in the industry already know that the lack of knowledge makes any discussion challenging.

“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,” John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute said, ” And that’s one of the reasons why we spend so much time in advertising and educational outreach.” – Polls show energy doesn’t spark Americans’ interest, Politico.com, Oct. 28 2013

People still have strong opinions on energy, regardless of their tenuous grasp of the facts.

The oil and gas industry ranked dead last in a Gallup popularity contest in August 2012.  Oil companies have been the target for high gasoline prices since the 1970’s, right along with the president.  In March 2012, a Washinton Post/ABC News poll found that 65 percent disapproved of the handling of gasoline prices by President Obama.  This was when the news media were calling out predictions that drivers would be paying $4 to $6 a gallon by that summer, incorrectly.  Those ratings weren’t as bad as former President George W. Bush in the polls in 2005 and 2006, however.

“The president doesn’t have the magic button that can raise or lower gas prices,” said Avery Ash, manager of regulatory affairs at AAA.

Gas prices are controlled by a global market.  That market is affected by supply and demand, economic volatility, unrest in the Middle East…sound familiar?  These and other factors are out of the control of any one person, even the president.

Americans know that they don’t like fracking, but do they know what it is?  Polls indicate, no.  However, they do want to see more natural gas produced.  The University of Texas at Austin’s survey found that 40 percent of people were familiar with hydraulic fracturing, but only 38 percent of those support its use.  In the September Pew Research survey, they found that that opposition had grown from 38 percent in March to 49 percent in September.

The University of Texas study did find that 57 percent believe natural gas helps lower carbon dioxide emissions.  However, the debate over emissions from fracking of methane, a greenhouse gas, may cause a shift in those numbers.  For now, 82 percent want the federal government to focus on developing natural gas.  That isn’t the top emphasis for new development, however.  89 percent want the development to focus on renewable technologies.

Polls indicate that people want to see greener alternatives to fossil fuels, a hopeful indicator for renewable energy supporters. The Pew Survey discovered that 58 percent said it is important to develop energy sources like wind, solar, and hydrogen technology, and 34 percent indicated the same for coal, oil, and natural gas.

Clean energy development is becoming increasingly popular, but are they willing to pay the cost to get the new energy technology up and running?  Well, no.

“I call this ‘hope is not an energy source,'” said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.

“A lot of people who look at energy and say, ‘Why don’t we just do’ and you can fill in the rest of the sentence, and are hoping that things are cheaper than they already are,” he said. “Incumbent infrastructure is almost always cheaper, [and] I think people underestimate the hurdles for new technology.” – Polls show energy doesn’t spark Americans’ interest, Politico.com, Oct. 28 2013

Do you think it would change the conversation about the Keystone XL pipeline if the UT poll didn’t show that 58 percent of people said that the United State’s biggest foreign oil supplier was Saudi Arabia?   The heated debate over the Alberta-Texas pipeline project was supported by two-thirds of the people polled in the recent surveys.  However, only 13 percent of the UT poll knew that Canada was the largest oil exporter to the U.S.

“A large fraction of the energy debate is driven by ideology and partisanship and to the extent that that is the case the facts don’t matter much,” said Michael Levi, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Would we have a different Keystone debate?  I don’t think so.”

Levi said what people really need is a better understanding of what affects things like their electricity bill — and what doesn’t. He said the debate over the failed cap-and-trade bill in 2010 was notable for a “muddled” rhetorical fight over how much people would pay under a market-based greenhouse gas reduction program.

“The public could be smarter about how about energy affects them — how their bills are calculated and affected — and not worry about getting in the weeds,” Levi said.  – Polls show energy doesn’t spark Americans’ interest, Politico.com, Oct. 28 2013

Places like the Critical Issues Facing the Energy Industry Online Forum are great places for people in the industry to participate in an intelligent discussion revolving around relevant issues in the energy sector.

The energy industry is at a crossroads, safety is paramount and the Big Crew Change is well underway. The response is not one major decision by sector luminaries. Rather is it an ongoing stream of decisions made daily and mostly by midlevel management. In order to make timely and good decisions in our 24/7 global world, decision makers and their advisors must have timely access the best available data, information and informed trusted advice. PennEnergy and The Rapid Response institute have partnered to educate the energy industry. This partnership has resulted in the creation of Critical Issues Facing the Energy Industry Online Forum.  – www.PennEnergyResearch.com

The information, discussions, and webinars pertaining initially to the oil & gas sector, and focusing on the upcoming SEMS requirements. (November 15, 2013 is the deadline for accredited third-party audits to be completed).  However, with a subscription required, this is not the answer for the average Joe off the street.  How do we get the everyday person interested in something that is so important all the time and not just when they flip the light switch and nothing happens?

Maybe forums like this can offer an answer.  The energy industry involves some brilliant people, and enthusiasm is contagious, right?

‘Til next time,

Jessica