Are Americans Losing Interest in Energy?

 

Takeaway

  • Since March 2012, the percentage of consumers who read about energy almost daily has dropped by more than half
  • Only 3 percent of consumers believe energy should be the most important area for spending federal tax dollars, but a majority thinks the government needs to do more to prepare for future needs

Americans are becoming less energized about energy issues. Compared to any time in the past two years, they find energy less important, read about it less often and worry less about saving it at home. At the same time, they’re more troubled about its environmental impacts, both from consuming fuels and from getting them out of the ground.

Those are some top lessons from the latest University of Texas Energy Poll. Results were released Oct. 17 by the McCombs School of Business, which surveyed 2,144 consumers between Sept. 5 and 23.

Since September 2011, the poll has taken a twice-yearly snapshot of consumer attitudes about energy. This fifth round paints a broader portrait of how they’re changing over time. Energy is still a strong concern, deemed as important by 62 percent of respondents. But that’s a significant drop from 67 percent a year ago. The poll’s margin of error is 3.1 percent.

On other measures of public interest, the poll also shows a clear pattern of declines:

  • Since March 2012, the percentage of consumers who read about energy almost daily has dropped by more than half, from 29 to 14 percent.
  • The percentage seeking information on home energy conservation has fallen over the past year, from 67 to 62 percent. Fewer also expect to buy hybrid or all-electric vehicles over the next five years.

Americans less energized about energyWhat isn’t so clear is why interest is waning, says poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum. She suggests lighter news coverage as one factor. “Prior to the election, energy was everywhere,” she observes. “This year, there have been no major storms like Superstorm Sandy, or a major drought affecting people’s livelihoods. The subject hasn’t been thrown in front of them.”

Another factor could be a slide in gasoline prices during the survey period. From a national average of $3.61 a gallon on Sept. 2, the price of regular dropped to $3.37 on October 7, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In the new poll, only 65 percent of consumers call gasoline prices “very high,” down from 74 percent six months ago.

Kirshenbaum fears that lower interest may lead to lower energy literacy. She notes that 58 percent of the survey respondents named Saudi Arabia as America’s largest source of imported oil. Only 13 percent gave the correct answer: Canada. Says Kirshenbaum, “There appears to be a lack of engagement and a lack of understanding on many issues.”

Environmental Fears Fueled

As Americans worry less about their pocketbooks, they’re thinking more about another side of energy: its environmental effects, especially on the earth’s climate.

Almost three of every four consumers believe global climate change is occurring. That figure has held steady over the past year, notes Kirshenbaum, up from 65 percent in March 2012.

What’s more, 61 percent are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who wants to reduce carbon emissions. “That may mean the national dialogue on climate change is shifting,” she says, “from whether it’s taking place to what we can do about it.”U.S. oil import sources

What’s causing global warming? Deforestation gets cited most often, by 70 percent. But more and more respondents are also pointing fingers at fossil fuels. Fifty-nine percent name coal as a culprit, up from 51 percent a year ago.

Oil is also getting less popular. Support for the Keystone XL pipeline has slid over the past year and a half, from 50 down to 41 percent. Approval for expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has followed a similar track, from 46 percent down to 40.

Fragmented Feelings on Natural Gas

The public makes a partial exception for one fossil fuel. Support for natural gas development remains strong, at 61 percent. Consumers see jobs and lower prices as the fuel’s top benefits, and 57 percent also believe its production reduces carbon emissions.

If consumers look favorably on burning natural gas, they have mixed feelings about the way much of it is extracted: hydraulic fracturing, often nicknamed “fracking.”

More Americans are becoming aware of the term, though more than half are still in the dark. In the latest poll, 40 percent express familiarity — an increase from 32 percent in March 2012.

But more people are also expressing concerns about the environmental risks of injecting chemicals and sand to break up deep beds of gas-bearing rock. Among those familiar with fracking, support has declined from 48 to 38 percent. The percentage wanting more regulation has climbed 5 points, to 43, with water contamination as the No. 1 fear.

“Natural gas is a complicated issue, with many conflicting tradeoffs and subtle nuances,” says Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at UT. “It's a cleaner fuel than some of the alternatives, but its extraction process makes people nervous.  

“Some of that nervousness is because it is being produced in areas where it either hasn't been produced before, or if it has been produced there before, it's been a while.” 

Wishy-Washy About Washington

Another subject of conflicted feelings is better-known among Americans: Uncle Sam.

Respondents consider energy a low federal priority. Two years ago, 7 percent considered it the most important area for spending tax dollars. Today, only 3 percent do.

They’re deeply disenchanted with federal energy policy. Forty-eight percent are dissatisfied with President Barack Obama’s handling of the issue, versus 22 percent who are satisfied. For Congress, the negative numbers are even more lopsided: 62 percent con, 9 percent pro. The Department of Energy fares only slightly better, with 38 percent unhappy.

At the same time, a majority wants Washington to do more to prepare for future energy needs. Over two years, the percentage has edged up from 57 to 60.

That seeming contradiction sends a clear message, says Wayne Hoyer, marketing department chair at McCombs: Americans are unhappy that their elected officials are doing so little.

“Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the government because they want it to do more,” says Hoyer. “This is especially the case now, with the recent government shutdown. My sense is that people are really fed up with the lack of response.”

Water Concerns Rising

There’s one energy issue on which Americans are getting more engaged, instead of less: water. After record droughts across the Midwest and Texas, the latest poll has added several questions about water policy.

It finds 70 percent of respondents concerned about depletion of water resources. Water is a bigger worry than energy conservation, renewables and carbon emissions.

When it comes to government, 57 percent want it to do more about water, especially to conserve it. From 50 to 58 percent support increased incentives for water-wise products, buildings and landscaping and repairing sewer systems.

They’re slightly less keen on capital-intensive projects to increase supply, with 47 percent favoring more money for new facilities and desalinization plants.

Webber expects water concerns to become a torrent in coming years. “I think that water is entering the national conscience in terms of conservation,” he says, “with about a two-to-three decade lag behind energy, so it's just now on the scene.”

View a presentation of the October 2013 poll results in the video below. In three other videos, the researchers focus on findings related to water, climate change, and hydraulic fracturing. For more information, visit the UT Energy Poll website.

See video

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Wayne Hoyer

Department Chair, Professor of Marketing McCombs School of Business

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