Stewart M. Patrick

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Americans on Renewable Energy

by Stewart M. Patrick
January 18, 2012

An aerial view of the shale oil drilling rig SAI-307 in the Patagonian province of Neuquen October 14, 2011. (Enrique Marcarian/Courtesy Reuters) An aerial view of the shale oil drilling rig SAI-307 in the Patagonian province of Neuquen October 14, 2011. (Enrique Marcarian/Courtesy Reuters)

With Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, energy security is once again at the top of the global agenda—and not just in Rick Perry’s debate talking points. But true “energy security” will require more than independence from unreliable or unstable suppliers. It will also oblige governments and companies to invest in a wider range of energy sources—many of them renewable. That is the message of the World Future Energy Summit, which opened in Abu Dhabi this week. In his keynote address, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the world to double its use of renewable energy by 2030. Ban’s words should resonate strongly in the United States, according to a new digest of polls on energy security released by the International Institutions and Global Governance program and worldpublicopinion.org.

Americans, it turns out, are deeply anxious about energy security. An overwhelming majority (85 percent) consider it important (67 percent “very important”) to “decrease American dependence on oil imported from the Middle East”. Nearly two in three Americans (64%) favor creating a new international institution to “monitor the worldwide energy market and predict potential shortages.” Large majorities worry that energy shortages and higher prices could lead to destabilization of the world economy, that energy competition could lead to international conflict (or even war), and that current energy production is causing unacceptable environmental damage.

To ameliorate these dangers, Americans overwhelmingly support greater investments in renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower. They favor requiring utilities to use more alternative energy (even if this proves more expensive) and providing tax incentives to encourage the development and use of such technologies. Americans recognize the costs of these steps. But they’re convinced such investments will pay off in the long run—and are critical to long-term U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

There are a few wrinkles in the polling data. Americans generally support conservation as a means to reduce U.S. energy dependence. Among other steps, they favor retrofitting old buildings, elevating efficiency standards for U.S. companies, and raising fuel standards for automobiles—even if this causes the price of cars to rise. When it comes to increasing energy taxes to encourage conservation, Americans initially express skepticism. But when told that the revenues would be earmarked to developing alternative energy (or offset by other tax reductions), a majority supports higher taxes.

Still, U.S. public support for conservation has slipped. Until recently, the Gallup organization found consistent majority preference in the United States for promoting “more conservation by consumers of existing energy resources”, as opposed to the “production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies.” But the percentage taking this view fell from a peak of 64% in March 2007 to only 48% in March 2011, as the percentage favoring greater production rose to 41%. For a significant minority, “drill, baby, drill” is the strategy of choice.

Other Americans are looking beyond oil. Three-quarters of the U.S. public say the U.S. government should assume that oil is running out and will need to be replaced as a primary source of energy. The public seems less certain what should replace it. Coal, which the United States has in abundance, is one obvious option, but Americans remain lukewarm on building new coal-fired plants. Nuclear power is another, but in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a clear majority of Americans opposes building new nuclear power plants. (It remains uncertain whether U.S. anti-nuclear sentiment will prove enduring or transient. Earlier polls have shown that Americans do not want to abandon nuclear power altogether, but rather favor it as part of a broad matrix of energy sources—and a way to reduce reliance on coal and oil.).  Globally, as the International Energy Agency predicts, Fukushima should lead to a surge in coal usage—and emissions. But perhaps not in United States.

The answer, increasingly, is natural gas—which is the biggest change in the US energy matrix. As The Economist describes:

“This is because, even were it not cheap and plentiful, gas would be attractive simply on the grounds of cleanliness. It is true that there are questions about the harm that may be done by the “fracking” process that liberates shale gas; there is an urgent need for systematic before-and-after environmental audits. But once the gas is out of the ground, it is a great deal cleaner than coal. It does not distribute neurotoxic mercury around the planet; it does not clog city air and the lungs of those who breathe it with soot and sulphur. Gas is a boon to public health.”

Controversy has erupted over natural gas, with both sides spewing legitimate and fabricated concerns. But last August, the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board published a “compromise” report, which as my colleague Michael Levi describes, could serve as a basis for a future middle-ground path that incorporates natural gas, “if sensible people on all sides look past the fact that they don’t like everything in the report.” With the nation’s politicians deadlocked on so many issues, I’m not optimistic that natural gas will miraculously inspire cooperation.

View the entire digest of World Opinion on Energy Security at www.cfr.org/public opinion. View key findings and a short introduction at worldpublicopinion.org

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