Latest UT Energy Poll: Americans Choosing Planet Over Pocketbook



  • For the first time in the Energy Poll’s four years, energy optimists equal pessimists.
  • 76 percent now believe global climate change is occurring.
  • 62 percent want government to do more to prepare for future energy needs.

When it comes to energy, Americans are starting to agree with Little Orphan Annie: They’re betting their bottom dollars the sun will come out tomorrow.

That’s one of the key findings from the latest University of Texas Energy Poll, conducted in September and released October 20 by the McCombs School of Business. The survey, administered twice per year, asked 2,019 adults nationwide about a wide range of energy topics. For the first time in the poll’s history, the number of energy optimists nearly equals pessimists.

Asked in what direction the nation’s energy issues are headed, a record 28 percent of respondents say they’re going in the right direction, with 29 percent saying the wrong direction. That’s a small shift from six months ago, when the poll placed naysayers four points ahead. But it’s a major swing from the first survey in September 2011 when gloom prevailed 42 percent to 14.

“For a while, people kept worrying about energy prices being too high, even when they dropped,” says David Spence, professor in the Business, Government, and Society Department at McCombs. “Now they feel more secure, and it shows.”

Specifically, that confidence shows in their views of gasoline prices. Just 58 percent of consumers rate them as “high,” a 34-point drop from a year before. A record 27 percent describe them as “about right.”

Could pump prices remain deflated? More and more respondents dare to think so. In March, 84 percent expected prices to rise in the following six months. Today, only 62 percent do, with 39 percent expecting them to decrease or stay the same.

UT Austin Energy Poll Infographic

The halo of good feelings surrounds more than just their gas tanks. Compared with March, consumers are more satisfied with virtually all energy players, from oil and gas companies to environmental groups, by an average of 3.5 points. But dissatisfaction ratings are still higher for government and big business, except for renewable energy companies and local electric utilities.

Consumers are also turning attention away from their pocketbooks, notes poll director Sheril Kirshenbaum. “With people being less constrained by gasoline, maybe they’re able to focus on bigger, broader issues.” Topping their expanded concerns, poll numbers show, are planet and politics.

Warmer feelings on environment

Respondents are stressing less about energy prices and instead are worried more about environmental costs. Almost half are willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment — nine points higher than in the last poll. Thirty-four percent are unwilling.

Most striking are their attitudes on global climate change. It’s occurring, say 76 percent — a surge of 6 points in six months and 11 points since the poll began. And although there’s still a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans, more than half of Republicans now agree climate change is real.

Such a shift probably has multiple causes, says Kirshenbaum, and the poll hints at several — starting with extreme weather. This past summer was warmer than usual, according to 54 percent of respondents, and water conservation has become a priority for 78 percent.

“The West Coast has seen both wildfires and severe drought,” she says. “Regardless of where people are politically, they may be recognizing that something is different right now.”

Greater role for government

Respondents don’t just think climate change is happening, though. According to poll results, they want government to do something about it. For 65 percent of respondents, “steps to reduce carbon emissions” has become their top priority when rating political candidates on energy issues. It’s helped push “make gasoline less expensive” from first place to fifth.

When it comes to specific steps, 37 percent support a carbon tax, up 9 points in six months. Loan guarantees for nuclear power, an energy source with no carbon emissions, have leapt 7 points.

“Presumably, with prices down,” observes Spence, “people see a little more room for politicians to force the internalization of pollution costs and drive up prices a little.”

Energy users also want Uncle Sam on the supply side. Sixty-two percent seek more Washington action on energy needs, while only 24 percent think the government does too much already. They want federal aid for a wide variety of sources, with jumps of 3 to 5 points for federal subsidies for renewables, efficiency, oil and gas, and nuclear power. 

Coal still a dirty word

One fuel is missing from consumers’ energy menu: coal, which they rank as the worst of six sources. Fifty-two percent of voters want to reduce coal use — a 9-point leap since the last poll — while only 15 percent of voters favor it.

The industry earns the lowest satisfaction rating of any energy player except the U.S. Congress: 18 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency, whose Clean Power Plan would close many coal-burning power plants, gets a rating of 25.

“Coal is so much dirtier than everything else,” says Spence. “Because of what the EPA is doing — a number of cases have gone to the Supreme Court — it’s perceived as fighting a good fight on this issue.”

Millennials moving up

Minds are not the only things changing about energy issues, says Kirshenbaum. The age makeup of the U.S. population is also in flux. Americans under the age of 35 make up 31 percent of the survey pool, and they’re both more optimistic and more environmentally conscious than their elders:

Many say the U.S. is headed in the right direction on energy: 35 percent, versus 23 percent who think the country’s going the wrong way.
The federal government should do more when it comes to energy, say 69 percent — 7 points higher than the overall population.

On climate change, 82 percent say it’s occurring and only 10 percent believe it’s not.
Sixty-four percent would pay higher prices to protect the environment — double the percentage for Americans 65 and older.

Those demographic shifts could have consequences for energy policy, and not just in the distant future, says Kirshenbaum. It could happen as soon as next year’s presidential elections.

“More young people are getting to voting age, and they’re more concerned about the environment than older voters,” she says. “Younger Americans are more likely to vote for candidates who will cut carbon emissions and impose a carbon tax. They’re willing to pay more to clean up the environment. Age seems to be very important.”


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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