At least since the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the
United States has wrestled with the difficult question of
how best to ensure an adequate energy supply while protecting
the environment. Today, this question continues to play a
role in our political debates. Whether and how public policy
might reduce reliance on imported oil, encourage lower-emission
vehicles, and spur the development of new or cleaner sources
of power are all regular matters of public discussion and
Believing that prudent policies require a well-informed citizenryone
well versed in the factswe sought, with the help of
survey research conducted by Zogby Associates, to determine
what Americans believe about energy and environmental issues
and the extent of their knowledge. Building on similar research
from 2006, we report here on the January 2009 responses of
1,000 Americans, chosen to be representative of public opinion
generally, on matters such as the sources of U.S. energy,
the extent of the oil supply, the rate of global warming,
the safety of nuclear power, and the promise of renewable
The survey found that the views that many Americans hold about a wide range
of these issues remain, in key ways, inaccurate. For example:
- Forty-nine percent of respondents believe Saudi Arabia
exports the most oil to the U.S., while just 13% correctly
identified Canada as our top foreign supplier. According
to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S.
imported 58.2% of its petroleum (including crude oil) in
2007, but only 16.1% of all imports came from Persian Gulf
- More than 67% believe we can meet future energy demand
through conservation and efficiency. Historically, in contrast,
energy demand actually increases alongside efficiency gains.
And because energy use is not static, conservation leads
to only marginal reductions in demand. The EIA projects
global energy consumption to increase 50% from 2005 to 2030
and U.S. energy use to increase 11.2% from 2007 to 2030.
- Just 37% correctly answered that no one has ever died
from the actual generation of nuclear power in the U.S.
Though the U.S. has not built a nuclear-power reactor since
the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, 104 active
reactors safely generate roughly one-fifth of our nations
- Sixty-three percent of those surveyed believe that human
activity is the greatest source of greenhouse gases. In
fact, such emissions are significantly smaller than natural
emissions. The burning of fossil fuels is responsible for
just 3.27% of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere
each year, while the biosphere and oceans account for 55.28%
and 41.46%, respectively.
- Less than 28% correctly believe that U.S. air quality
has improved since 1970. According to the Environmental
Protection Agency, the six most common air pollutants have
decreased by more than 50%; air toxins from large industrial
sources have fallen nearly 70%; new cars are more than 90%
cleaner, in terms of their emissions; and production of
most ozone-depleting chemicals has ceased. These reductions
have occurred despite the fact that during the same period,
gross domestic product tripled, energy consumption increased
50%, and motor vehicle use increased almost 200%.
There have been some notable changes since our 2006 survey.
Americans are more likely to believe that spent nuclear fuel
can be stored safely and that offshore oil drilling can be
conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner. Half of
those surveyed feel spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored,
while 64% of respondents favor expanded offshore drilling.
As policymakers call for increased energy independence, it
is noteworthy that a large portion of the public is favorable
toward abundant domestic energy sources that could lessen
our reliance on foreign oil.
Additionally, considering the momentum behind renewable energies
and carbon-emission regulation, it is noteworthy that almost
half of respondents believe renewable-energy sources will
not replace fossil fuels and uranium any time soon91%
of our electricity is generated by fossil fuels and uranium
and the EIA projects that 85% of our electricity in 2030 will
be generated by such fuelsand that a plurality (49%)
do not think reducing carbon emissions will be simple or inexpensive.
Given the significant push for greater use of renewable energies
and alternative fuels and repeated warnings about mankinds
impact on the global climate, policymakers must be guided
by, and Americans deserve to know, the realities of meeting
energy demand and the true costs of going green.
Energy & the Environment: Myths & Facts is intended as a primer
for educators, journalists, and public officialsfor
concerned citizens generallyas we seek twin goals: an
energy supply sufficient to fuel continued economic growth
and environmental policies that will protect public health
and the quality of our lives.