Good and bad news in recent WSJ/NBC energy survey

Here are some interesting highlights from this WSJ/NBC poll on energy, which also points to some of the frustrations ahead in developing and communicating policy solutions.

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72% of the respondents said developing alternative energy sources could "accomplish a great deal."
Regarding the question, “which step that should receive the most emphasis from policy makers”
  • 61% of respondents chose "developing alternative energy sources"
  • 25% responded that "exploring and drilling for oil" in the U.S. should get the most emphasis
  • 12% picked "having Americans conserve and use less oil."

When asked whether expanding areas for drilling for oil off coastal states was a step in the right direction:

  • 63% said yes, with 44% saying it would accomplish "a great deal."
  • 27% said that allowing more drilling off coastal states was a step in "the wrong direction."

Asked about building more nuclear plants:

  • 53% said it was a step in the right direction
  • 31% said it was a step "in the wrong direction 

Unfortunately, this poll is as much a measurement of the limits of consumer awareness and knowledge about energy as it is a measurement of voter support for specific policies.  While there is some good news concerning the strong support for developing “alternative energy” sources, as this was the top priority for most respondents, the overall tone of responses points to the challenges ahead. 

Improving energy efficiency in buildings should be leading any conversation on energy policy, given the scale of possibilities to reduce energy demand found in energy efficiency.  Data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), show that electricity consumption by U.S. buildings (residential, commercial and industrial) accounts for 71% of all U.S. electricity consumption and 36% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Improving energy efficiency in our homes and workplaces (changing lighting, weatherizing, buying energy efficient appliances and electronics devices, reducing vampire power) is widely acknowledged as one of the best ways to reduce overall electricity usage (and in fact oneof the cheapest).  The recent McKinsey study “How Much at What Cost” found that improving energy efficiency could reduce U.S. power generation needs by 24% off of projected levels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 710-870 megatons – about 20% of the overall GHG reductions needed by 2030.  

Yet, outside of a question on conservation, reducing energy demand in buildings is nowhere in this poll, and most likely not top of mind among average voters. 

This poll is also a measure of the success of various interest groups in swaying public opinion and belief.  63% voters in this poll support expanding offshore drilling and another third believe opening the Arctic to exploration would accomplish "a great deal". 

Yet two recent government studies completely contradict the argument that drilling offshore or in the Arctic would impact energy prices and domestic oil supply

A recent EIA study of the impact of Arctic drilling on the price of oil determined that oil production couldn’t even begin for another 10 years, and that the impact on pricing would reduce the price of a barrel of oil only $0.41 to $1.44 (depending on the oil output scenario), a reduction of 1% off today’s prices. 

A separate EIA report on offshore drilling found that “access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030” and produce only 200,000 incremental new barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2030.  As my colleague Andy Stevenson pointed out, drilling offshore would achieve one quarter of the 800,000 bpd reduction in demand that we have seen simply from American drivers driving less this year due to higher gas prices.  And yet still, the idea persists that we can somehow drill our way out of this problem. 

Several times, the Journal article analyzing the poll makes direct reference to “voters wanting everything”.  I see it differently.  Voters want solutions, but unfortunately, in trying to decide between solutions, voters have a very limited knowledge base to work off.  Worsening matters, voters are being bombarded with misinformation campaigns and partisan bickering which isn’t giving them enough information to go on and isn’t moving the national conversation forward. 

In one chapter of “Energy and American Society: Thirteen Myths” (a book I highly recommend), Rosalyn McKeown quotes a variety of surveys and polls to detail how consumers are consistently and deeply uninformed about their energy consumption, the sources of electricity and the negatives inherent in traditional energy production.  This in turn can lead them to make poor decisions, and resist new technologies due to a variety of social and other non-price barriers.  

Our current national conversation is doing little to change this fact, leaving voters with one choice – “give us everything so we don’t have to choose and surely one of them will have to work.” 

Unfortunately, this could be the most expensive, least efficient energy policy we could pursue, at a time when we can least afford to be either.