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 concern.
Believing that prudent policies require a well-informed citizenry—one well versed in the facts—we 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 energy, the extent of the oil supply, the rate of global warming, the safety of nuclear power, and the promise of renewable energy sources. 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 countries.
- 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 nation’s electricity.
- 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 soon—91% 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 fuels—and 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 mankind’s 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 officials—for concerned citizens generally—as 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.