New Energy Poll: Pump Prices Shake Up Public Opinion

 

Takeaway

  • 66 percent of Americans see gasoline prices as high, down from 92 percent.
  • Up to 6 percent fewer are investing in energy-saving lights, appliances, and cars.
  • By a 33-point margin, consumers would give cities the power to ban hydraulic fracturing.

What a difference six months can make — at the gas pump and beyond. As consumers reflect on a recent plunge in gasoline prices, their thoughts about other areas of energy have been shaken up as well.

That’s a top lesson of the latest University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, released April 29 by the McCombs School of Business. The twice-yearly survey of 2,078 adults nationwide, conducted in March, depicts some of the steepest shifts in attitudes towards energy since the poll’s inception in 2011.

As recently as last September, 92 percent of consumers described gasoline prices as high. In the new poll, only 66 percent hold that view — by far the lowest number in the poll’s history. There are still more pessimists than optimists about the country's energy future, but over four years, the gap has narrowed from 29 points down to four.

“We can never say A leads to B to C,” says poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum. “But the data show such big jumps from previous polls that it may be that gasoline is driving some of these other trends. People’s energy priorities, their interest in renewables, and their concerns on issues like climate and carbon emissions are very much tied together.”

But the public appears to connect some energy issues to gasoline more than others. Here’s a look at which attitudes are changing and which aren’t:

Declaring Energy Independence

Four years ago, 73 percent of respondents were concerned about importing oil from foreign sources. Today, that number is 63 percent, and for the first time, people are actually more concerned about developing renewable energy technologies.

In fact, according to poll results, most Americans believe the United States could become the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas, but that may be too optimistic, says David Spence, professor of Business, Government, and Society at McCombs.

“The Saudis can absorb the prices we have now and still produce oil profitably,” he explains. “But in a general sense, it’s accurate that we are becoming one of the leading producers in the world.”

Buzz Over Electric Rates

For the first time, consumers view electricity as the costliest form of energy. Electric rates are described as high by 78 percent, a number that’s barely wavered for four years.

But electric rates don’t generate the worries that pump prices do, and that could be because, for many users, retail electric prices don’t seesaw like gasoline, notes Spence. Wholesale prices can fluctuate wildly, but “most people are protected, because they have a regulated utility or a 12-month contract.”

It might also be because consumers fear pump prices are too good to continue. The number who expect them to go up in six months has jumped six percentage points, to 84 percent.

“We’ve lived through higher prices not very long ago,” says Kirshenbaum, “so lower prices don’t feel like something that can last.”

New Energy Poll: Plunging Pump Prices Shake Up Public OpinionClouds for Conservation, Sunshine for Renewables

One partial casualty of lower energy costs could be conservation. Seventy percent of consumers are still concerned about their overall energy budgets, but fewer people are willing to take specific actions to reduce long-term expenses.

Interest in electric vehicles has fallen six percentage points since the last poll, to 18 percent of consumers. Plans to buy energy-efficient light bulbs have dropped five points, while appliances have slipped four points. “The stress on people’s wallets has eased, so they’re not looking for as many alternatives,”  Kirshenbaum says.

Renewables, on the other hand, remain as popular as ever. Sixty-six percent of consumers want the government to subsidize them, more than any other energy source. “All else being equal, people would prefer clean energy,” says Spence. “Solar and other kinds of renewable prices are coming down really fast. That figures into it, too.”

Fractured Signals on Oil and Gas

While consumers appear happy with cheaper hydrocarbons, they’re split over how to extract them — particularly over hydraulic fracturing, the technology that uses pressurized water and chemicals to break up deep layers of oil- and gas-bearing shale.

For the first time, among those familiar with fracking, more oppose it than support it, but the difference is within the poll’s margin of error, says Kirshenbaum.

What’s clearer is that they don’t want hydraulic fracturing next door. Among those familiar with the practice, 58 percent say cities should be able to prohibit it within their borders, even where it’s permitted by state law.

Municipal bans are being debated in several states, observes Spence, including Texas, where state lawmakers are considering overturning a local ban in Denton. “The question evokes in their minds, ‘What if it was my municipality?’” he says, “and therefore a NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] response.”

When it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline, however, consumers are more positive. Among those familiar with the proposed pipeline that would transport Canadian tar sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries, 44 percent support it and only 21 percent oppose it.

Pipeline Disconnect

To Kirshenbaum, the poll numbers on the pipeline show something else — a yawning information gap between debates in Washington and the rest of the country, where only 42 percent of consumers know what Keystone even is. Environmental groups have stressed its impact on climate change, but only six percent of poll respondents mentioned the issue.

“It tells me we haven’t done a good job of explaining the Keystone pipeline,” she says. “If anything, this poll points out a gaping hole in terms of energy literacy. There are important conversations happening, but the public has largely been left out of the conversation.”

Instead, people’s opinions seem to be shaped largely by party affiliation, she says. Sixty-two percent of Republicans want Keystone completed, versus 29 percent of Democrats.

A similar divide exists on fracking, with 65 percent of Republicans in favor and only 28 percent of Democrats. Says Kirshenbaum, “We’re seeing a continuing divergence of views on key energy issues that clearly tracks political party lines.”

 

Faculty in this Article

David Spence

Professor, Business, Government & Society

Professor Spence's research and teaching focus on business-government relations with emphasis on energy and environmental regulation. He received his...

David Spence teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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