Will of the People

Never have three recent national public opinion polls better defined American attitudes on energy. The polls not only seem to bolster each other but in fact appear to show an emerging national consensus.

In an April 2006 New York Times/CBS News poll, results suggested Americans might accept a gasoline tax hike if it reduced global warming or lessened U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The Times (according to UPI) said 85 percent of the 1,018 adults polled opposed a federal gas tax hike, but 55 percent said they’d support such an increase if it reduced the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. And 59 percent said they’d approve a gasoline tax hike if it resulted in less consumption or eased the threat of global warming. The federal gasoline tax has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. Bottom line: Americans will accept a tax if it is dedicated to solving real problems, and the ‘real’ problems are global climate change and U.S. over-reliance on imported energy. In the second national public opinion poll, according to Reuters, Americans are nearly as worried about their country’s dependence on foreign energy sources as they are about the war in Iraq. The poll by Yankelovich’s organization released by Foreign Affairs magazine in April 2006 showed that almost half of the Americans gave U.S. policymakers a failing grade in weaning the country from foreign oil. Nearly 90 percent said the lack of energy independence jeopardizes national security. Yankelovich said in a conference call, “Now with this issue having reached the tipping point in the public I think that that means the political complexion of that issue is about to change considerably.” In this latest survey, 85 percent of respondents said the U.S. government could do something about energy dependence if it tried. The share of those who worried foreign conflicts will drive up oil prices or cut off supplies rose to 55 percent from 42 percent. Bottom line: US foreign policy must address our over-reliance of imported energy. The third poll conducted by Pew Research and released in April 2006, concluded that huge majorities of both political parties favor renewables — and more Republicans than Democrats support ‘more research and deployment’ on renewables at 82 percent compared to 77 percent (http://pewresearch.org/obdeck/?ObDeckID=8). This poll and corroborating polls seemed to be the catalyst in the President’s willingness to address energy issues and support solar, wind, biofuels and plug-in hybrids in his State of the Union speech and subsequent visits to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Energy Conversion Devices in Michigan this past March. Bottom line: Clean energy is not some single party issue, but a national issue shared by all Americans. The U.S. energy board has been rearranged by a broad energy bill law going into effect, two hurricanes that shut in domestic oil production (23 percent still not producing in the Gulf of Mexico), sudden spikes in oil prices spurred by geopolitics, and media reports of record oil company profits. In my analysis of the Energy Bill, passed last fall by Congress, billions of dollars are directed toward expansion of natural gas pipelines and establishment of shipping ports to bring in liquified natural gas (LNG) into the United States, increasing U.S. reliance on further energy imports beyond the transportation sector into electric power generation. A recent report (http://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2006/032306a.html) concluded that Asia’s current account surplus is projected to have risen to US$341 billion in 2005 (equivalent to 47 percent of the United States’ current account deficit), that of oil/gas exporters is projected to have reached US$296 billion (equivalent to 41 percent of the United States’ current account deficit). Relative positions are expected to reverse in 2006. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections, oil/gas exporters’ current account surplus would amount to 46 percent of the U.S. deficit in 2006, while the figure for Asia would drop to 41 percent. The American people seem to identify with the vision articulated by the newly sworn-in DOE Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy, Andrew Karsner, who recently stated in his speech at PowerGen, “We can use the months ahead to lay the foundation for a permanent new direction in which America rightfully regains control of energy security and steers its economic destiny.” Obviously, the American public is ahead of the political process in endorsing ‘high value’ efficiency and renewable energy as the prime cornerstone of U.S. objectives of national and economic security, global environmental stabilization and U.S.-created jobs. Maybe, just maybe, the political system will finally catch up. About the author… Scott Sklar is president of his own policy and strategic marketing firm, The Stella Group Ltd., Washington, DC (solarsklar@aol.com). Previously, he served simultaneously as executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National BioEnergy Industries Association for 15 years. His book, A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy, was re-released in 2004 for its third printing.
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