by Max Schulz



Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question Frequencies

Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question X-tabs





In a democracy, a well-informed public can play an important role in helping elected officials make wise policy decisions. But many Americans believe in energy myths that shape their views and influence public-policy debates. Consider some of the most widely accepted ideas and how energy-policy decisions may reflect these beliefs.

The belief that nuclear energy is unsafe has resulted in an unwritten moratorium on new nuclear power plants. Since the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979, not a single nuclear reactor has been built in the United States. Moreover, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter outlawed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, even though almost all the material in a nuclear rod can be safely reused following the first nuclear cycle. Though no one has ever died from the production of nuclear power in the U.S., though we have safely generated nuclear power and stored nuclear waste for decades, and though other countries are increasingly turning to nuclear power to help meet their energy needs—notably France, which generates 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power—fear has held nuclear energy advancement hostage for thirty years. These unfounded fears have caused us to miss out on three decades’ worth of safe, reliable power that produces virtually zero carbon emissions. And we’ve lost all that time, too, which we could have spent training a workforce to wield and manage nuclear power technology.

Additionally, the notion that offshore drilling is environmentally dangerous has kept off-limits abundant domestic sources of oil and natural gas, making the U.S. the only country with significant known reserves of oil and natural gas that refuses to tap them. Since the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara’s coast, much of the public has viewed oil drilling as overly harmful to our ocean waters; but the track record of offshore drilling reveals a history of safety and of minimal environmental impact. Since 1975, offshore drilling in the Exclusive Economic Zone (within 200 miles of the U.S. coast) has a safety record of 99.999 percent, meaning that only 0.0001 percent of the oil produced has been spilled.[146] In spite of oil’s safety record, however, large portions of our oil- and natural gas–rich coastal waters remain off-limits to exploration and development. The result: U.S. dependence on foreign sources of energy has grown over time, as we have neglected to reap the benefits—economically and geopolitically—of our abundant natural resources.

Just as misguided fears may stymie the responsible development and use of certain resources, unrealistic hopes may accelerate the rollout of others—more appealing philosophically but less efficient economically. The deeply held view that renewable fuels hold immediate promise arguably played a part in the nation’s aggressive move toward corn ethanol. Hoping that corn ethanol can play a large role in powering our nation’s vehicles, the U.S. Congress increased the amount of ethanol that must be blended into our transportation-fuel mix from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 10.5 billion gallons in 2009 and 15 billion gallons in 2015. As it turns out, such a decision was premature. Just months after Congress upped the mandate, the tide of public opinion turned against corn ethanol, as the burning of large portions of our nation’s corn crop helped raise food prices worldwide, and as new research revealed that the massive land clearing required for the corn-ethanol business potentially increases, rather than decreases, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. In spite of billions of taxpayer-subsidized dollars and protective tariffs, the domestic ethanol industry fell into disarray, with dozens of ethanol refiners going bankrupt because of falling ethanol prices and resulting excess refining capacity. The corn-ethanol debacle is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences and of the potential of myth-based thinking to lead to premature—and, ultimately, unsuccessful—energy policies that harm the economy and, often, even the environment.

Similarly, we may be acting too quickly to limit carbon-dioxide emissions, despite indications that the Earth’s climate is not warming as quickly as many believe. According to computer models and media accounts, the Earth’s temperature is on a breakaway upward trajectory. However, though the Earth’s average temperature increased about one degree Fahrenheit during the twentieth century, its climb was not constant. Rather, two distinct warming periods were separated by a period of global cooling. Additionally, satellite data indicate that the second warming period of the twentieth century has recently halted and, perhaps, is in reverse. Computer models did not project such a shift. We simply cannot be sure we understand the myriad intricacies of global climate dynamics, at least not sufficiently to justify sweeping attempts to regulate carbon dioxide, the supposed chief culprit of climate change. Particularly since such regulations would come at enormous economic cost—potentially hitting every industry, business, and consumer—the risks of rushing to judgment are substantial. Unless we proceed cautiously, aggressive climate measures could raise energy and electricity prices, curtail economic output, and reduce overall employment.

Along with unconfirmed fears of humans’ impact on climate, the mistaken belief that U.S. cities are becoming more polluted has sparked opposition to building new coal-fired power plants. Though the idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant is recent (and unproven) and though air quality in our cities has steadily improved for decades, many oppose new coal plants. If carried to its logical extreme, misplaced fears about climate and pollution could bar not only new coal plants but could also shut down existing coal plants, effectively closing off the source of half of our nation’s electricity supply.

Finally, due to the inefficiencies of renewable energies and alternative fuels, the possibility of U.S. energy independence anytime in the near future is a myth. However, the U.S. is well positioned to meet our future energy needs, for instead of focusing all our resources on a single energy source or energy supplier, we have a diversified portfolio of energy resources and numerous supplies that act as an effective hedge against supply disruptions. For example, contrary to popular opinion, the U.S. imports oil from dozens of nations and is not overly reliant on any single country or region. Only 16 percent of our 2007 oil imports came from the Persian Gulf, for example, while over 61 percent of the petroleum consumed in the U.S. in 2007 was either produced here or imported from Canada and Mexico, our immediate neighbors. In spite of such balance, misplaced fears that we are overly dependent on dangerous regimes for our oil supply could hasten government mandates and subsidies for unproven technologies that divert resources from more efficient uses—and raise the overall cost of energy for consumers.

Misguided energy policies ultimately tend to produce economic harm, both to producers and consumers. Though its economic impact is often overlooked, energy policy affects everyone’s pocketbook. Higher energy prices inevitably lead to higher prices and job losses throughout the economy. Additionally, since the poorest households spend the largest share of their incomes on energy, policies that raise the price of energy disproportionately hurt the poor. Politicians would do well to remember this as they consider President Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions approximately 83 percent by 2050.[147]According to the Congressional Budget Office, just a 15 percent reduction in emissions from 1998 levels would impose an additional $680 (measured in constant 2006 dollars) in costs on the poorest 20 percent of our population, the largest percentage increase (3.3 percent) of the five economic quintiles.[148]

As our survey shows, many Americans hold inaccurate ideas about key energy issues. From classrooms to press rooms to legislative halls, energy myths abound. The pervasiveness of such misunderstandings about energy often leads to energy policies driven by emotion, rather than by facts; to premature, rather than prudent, legislation and regulations; and to constrictive, rather than growth-oriented, economic outcomes.

Instead of rushing to judgment based on political expediency, unproven theories, or fear, policymakers should focus on realistic energy policies that meet our needs today without creating liabilities for us tomorrow. Scientific, technological, and economic realities, rather than myths, must guide energy-policy decisions. Separating myths from realities is essential if Americans are to continue to depend on reliable and affordable sources of energy.



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Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2009