Heather E. Hodges

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Public Reaction to Energy, Overview

Heather E. Hodges
Department of Political Science
University of California, Santa Barbara,
Santa Barbara, California 93016-9420
United States
Eric R.A.N. Smith
Department of Political Science
University of California, Santa Barbara,
Santa Barbara, California 93016-9420
805-893-6160; smith@polsci.ucsb.edu

Keywords: Deepwater Horizon; energy disasters; environmentalism; Fukushima nuclear power plant; nuclear power; offshore oil drilling; public knowledge; public opinion energy; public opinion nuclear power; public opinion oil; solar power; Three Mile Island; wind power

Abstract: This article describes U.S. public opinion on major energy issues. It discusses the influence of public opinion on public policy, the public’s knowledge about energy issues, and the public’s sometimes contradictory support of energy efficiency and renewable energy, on the one hand, and offshore oil drilling and conventional energy on the other hand. The article also examines the demographic, partisan, and ideological correlates of opinion on energy issues. It concludes with a discussion of how energy disasters influence both public opinion and public policy.

Public Reaction to Energy, Overview

Heather E. Hodges and Eric R. A. N. Smith

The term public opinion refers to the factual beliefs and preferences about issues of interest to the general population. Whether people believe that oil exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (a factual question) and whether people believe that the refuge should be opened to oil exploration (a preference) are typical examples of public opinion questions. Public opinion is normally measured using survey methods. Pollsters contact randomly selected samples of adults and ask them a series of questions to measure their opinions on current policy issues. The results of these surveys often play a major role in policy making.

1. Definition and Importance of Public Opinion on Energy

What the public thinks about energy is important because public opinion is a major force influencing public policy on energy production and consumption. The fact that elected officials generally follow their constituents' wishes on high-profile issues is well documented by political scientists. Studies certainly show the influence of major interests, such as the oil and gas and nuclear power industries, but public opinion is influential as well. On major issues that receive a good deal of media attention, such as nuclear power and offshore oil development, the public usually gets what it wants.

Academic studies aside, observers can easily see the influence of public opinion in the cases of both nuclear power and offshore oil development. Public opposition to nuclear power, especially after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, helped block the construction of new nuclear power plants. In the aftermath of the accident, public support for nuclear power dropped sharply, and every proposal for a new nuclear facility was met with mass protests. Public opposition, coupled with soaring construction costs, blocked the growth of the nuclear power industry until the late 2000s. Only when public support for nuclear power began to grow in response to higher energy prices and the changing views of some environmental leaders who began seeing nuclear power as an acceptable choice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, did the nuclear power industry recover and new plants began to be built.

In the case of offshore oil drilling, the California public has moved through intermittent periods of quiet acceptance and intense opposition during the past century. The 1969 spill in the Santa Barbara Channel crystallized public opposition, and helped launch the modern environmental movement. During the 1980s and 1990s, public opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming opposition to further drilling. In order to curry favor with California voters, President George H. W. Bush ordered a moratorium on new oil drilling leases in federal waters in 1990. President Clinton continued it in his administration, and President George W. Bush allowed the policy to stand until 2008 when rising gas prices gave him a political excuse to end the moratorium. In the case of offshore drilling along the Florida coast, public opinion against oil drilling was so intense that in June 2002 President Bush ordered the Interior Department to buy back some offshore oil leases that had been sold to oil companies and asked Congress to pass legislation to repurchase other leases. The official explanation for the buy-back from Department of Interior Secretary Gail Norton was that offshore oil development in Florida was opposed by “public opinion.”

One can also see the influence of public opinion on policy makers in every energy crisis from that of 1973–1974 to the gasoline and electricity price spikes of 2010–2011. Every time shortages appeared and prices soared, the public demanded steps to lower energy prices. Politicians leapt to do the public's bidding, despite the fact that lowering energy prices encourages consumption, potentially making the energy situation worse.

The initiative process gives voters a measure of direct control over public policy. In the 23 states and hundreds of counties and cities with the initiative process, voters can do more than demand that their elected officials pass the laws they want: Voters can pass the laws themselves. In these cases, public opinion controls energy policy. In California, for example, voters have passed both local and statewide initiatives limiting oil development. Although anti-nuclear power groups were not able to persuade California voters to pass an initiative to block nuclear power in the state in 1976, they came close enough to scare the state legislature into passing tough nuclear safety legislation that effectively blocked efforts to build more nuclear power plants. Moreover, the threat of an initiative vote against any controversial, proposed power source is clearly a deterrent to potential investors.

What the public wants does not always determine public policy. The influence of public opinion varies depending on a number of factors, including the attention given to the policy by the news media and the public, how much the public cares about the policy, expert opinion, and the interest groups arrayed for and against various policy choices. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, the public can get exactly what it wants—even against seemingly overwhelming opposition from the oil and gas, nuclear power, or electricity industries and their political allies. The public's policy preferences may not always be wise or well informed, but they can be influential.

2. The Public's Knowledge about Energy

One of the best known findings of public opinion research is that most of the public pays little attention to politics and, consequently, few people know much about politics or public policy. The list of facts not known by a majority of the public is stunning. What do the words “conservative” and “liberal” mean? What is the federal minimum wage? What majority is needed in the House and Senate to override a presidential veto? Who is the Speaker of the House of Representatives? Who is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court? In national, representative surveys of adults, fewer than half the respondents offered correct answers to any of these questions.

These findings should not be exaggerated. The public is not ignorant or stupid. In fact, only a small percentage of the population knows virtually nothing about politics. Rather, most people do know something about politics, just not a great deal. The public's modest level of knowledge stems from the fact that few people are interested in politics. In areas that people do care about—their jobs, their communities, their hobbies, and their favorite movies or sports teams—people know a great deal. Politics and public policy just do not draw much attention or interest.

Given these findings, one should not expect the public to know much about energy policy. There are a few aspects of the energy situation that almost everyone should grasp—for example, that the United States imports oil from the Middle East, whether gas prices are rising or falling, wind mills can be used to generate electricity, or waste from nuclear power plants is radioactive and hazardous. However, most aspects of energy policy are complicated and difficult to understand without some specialized knowledge or training. How much would new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or along the Florida or California coasts add to national oil supplies? Can the United States ever become energy independent? What are the effects of deregulation of the wholesale electricity market on prices? What are the trade-offs between clean air and electricity production? How safe is nuclear power? What is global warming, what causes it, and what are the policy options for doing something about it? What is the natural gas boom? None of these questions can be answered without a fair amount of knowledge. Because most energy policy questions are complicated, we should not expect the general public to understand them.

Table I presents selected survey results illustrating the public's lack of knowledge about energy matters. Question 1 shows that despite the Arab–Israeli wars, the gas lines, and the sharp gasoline price hikes, in the 1970s only approximately half the public realized that the United States had to import oil to meet its energy needs. A similar number knew that the U.S. had to import oil when the question was asked during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The failure to realize this fundamental fact about the U.S. energy situation may seem astonishing, but it is consistent with other findings about the level of the public's knowledge. Question 2, asked in 2002 when gasoline prices had been sharply rising, reveals that only about a third of the public knew how much oil the United States had to import. The other results in Table I add to the picture of the public's limited knowledge about energy policy.

Questions 3 and 4, asked in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, show that the public did not understand basic facts about nuclear power at a time when it was receiving a huge amount of media attention. Question 5 reveals that about half the public does not know what we do with nuclear waste.

Question 6 shows that only one-third of Americans could identify our largest energy source and Question 7 shows that few people were aware of the trends in automobile fuel efficiency. The most flattering result in Table I is the next item, which shows that two-thirds of the public knows that burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide. Finally, in 2013 only half the public understood the basics of the debate about hydrofracturing, or “fracking” for natural gas.

The public's low level of knowledge about energy policy is important because of the public's influence on policy makers. When the public forms opinions and makes demands on politicians based on misinformation, public policy may suffer. As the data in this section show, the public is often misinformed about even the most basic aspects of energy policy.

When considering the public’s knowledge regarding various energy forms, one must also appreciate the extent to which people view energy sources as risky. A number of studies demonstrate the extent to which risk perceptions predict opposition to energy options. According to a March, 2012 Gallup Poll, for example, 57% of Americans view nuclear power plants in the U.S. as safe—the same percentage that favors using nuclear energy. More detailed data on the public’s beliefs about the risks associated with different energy sources comes from a 2007 survey conducted by Ansolabehere, who found that 37% of the public believes nuclear power to be “very harmful” to the environment, 33% view coal as harmful, 25% view oil as harmful, 4% see natural gas as harmful, 3% see hydroelectric as harmful, and only 1% view wind and solar as harmful to the environment (Ansolabehere (2007)). From this, is it evident that the public tends to be concerned about nuclear, coal, and oil in terms of environmental risk, but much less concerned about other energy sources.

These factual beliefs drive nimbyism, or Not-in-my-backyard reactions to energy production. When asked about their feelings about siting an energy facility within 25 miles of their homes, people tend to be strongly opposed, especially in the case of nuclear (54%), coal (41%), and carbon sequestration (38%). The public tends to be less concerned about oil, which is perhaps surprising given that 37% believe that the BP oil spill will be the worst environmental disaster in the U.S. for one hundred years and 35% believe it is an environmental disaster, but maybe not the worst (Ansolabehere (2007)).

It is important to view the public’s factual knowledge about energy along side the extent to which they perceive various sources as risky. Even if they may not know much about energy, this does not prevent them from developing opinions regarding potential risks. Thus, in those cases where the public knows little, they may even be more apt to rely on their risk perceptions. Based on the above, we can anticipate that the public will continue to support nuclear, natural gas, and oil production as energy policy options, but they will be less supportive of any of those facilities if they are anywhere near their backyards.

3. The Public's Environmentalist but Conflicted Tendencies

When the public does turn its attention to energy issues, it tends to prefer environmentalist policies, although in recent years, there have been exceptions. That is, the public generally favors conservation and alternative, sustainable energy sources (wind and solar power); and usually (but not always) opposes conventional energy development (oil, nuclear power, and coal). However, the public also displays a clear preference for government action to maintain low energy prices, despite the fact that low prices lead to excessive and wasteful energy consumption (Smith (2002)). These inconsistent preferences seem to result from a mix of people's misunderstandings about the energy situation and their distrust of the energy industry.

Evidence for the environmentalist tendencies of the public can be seen in a variety of survey results. Figure 1 shows the percentages of people who said in response to a series of Gallup polls that they preferred more conservation or more production as a solution to U.S. energy problems. The solid line represents the percentage indicating that they preferred conservation, and the dotted line represents the percentage indicating that they preferred production. Even at the height of the gasoline price hikes in 2001, the public preferred conservation by a substantial margin. By March, 2002, when prices had stabilized and the public was becoming accustomed to higher prices, conservation was preferred by a margin of 60 to 30% (the remaining 10%, not shown in the figure, either responded “both” or “neither”). In the run up in gas prices from 2008 to 2011, the popularity of energy production rose again, but when it peaked in 2011, conservation was still the public’s preferred solution by a 48-41 margin. Figure 2 shows the results of a related series of questions in which respondents were asked whether they would give priority to development of energy supplies or protection of the environment. From 2001 through 2008, the public favored environmental protection, but when struck with a combination of recession and rising gasoline prices in 2009, that support faltered. Since then, the public’s views have been mixed, with the most recent poll showing a statistical tie. Figure 3 presents another trade-off. Respondents were asked whether they believed “protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth, or economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” By wide and consistent margins from 1984 to 2000, the polls showed a strong public preference for environmental protection. Support for environmental protection ranged from 61 to 71%, whereas the number giving priority to economic growth ranged from only 19 to 32%. Since 2000, however, the picture changed. More Americans preferred environmental protection to economic growth through 2008, but at a much lower level. After that public opinion bounced back and forth, with the most recent poll showing a 48%-43% plurality in favor of economic growth. The recession had clearly taken a toll on support for the environment.

[Figures 1-3 about here]

[Figures 1-3 about here]

On more specific policy questions, polls show that the public strongly supports energy efficiency and investment in environmentally friendly energy sources; however, the public also supports the development of some conventional energy sources that are criticized by environmental groups. Table II shows the public's response to several policy proposals for dealing with U.S. energy problems. The public overwhelmingly supports raising automobile fuel efficiency standards and strongly supports solar, wind, and hydrogen technology. Spending more on mass transit is also strongly supported. However, by an equally strong margin, the public favors more offshore oil drilling. That is, the public likes both low-carbon emission renewable energy and some kinds of conventional energy. Those positive feelings do not extend to giving tax cuts to encourage oil and gas drilling or to nuclear power—neither of which gets majority support.
[Table II about here]
Despite evidence that a substantial majority of the public holds environmentalist views, there are signs that the public does not consistently follow through on those stated preferences. The public supports conservation in principle, but opposes a variety of conservation policies because they place burdens on consumers. Simply stated, the public wants the benefits of cheap, plentiful energy, but does not want to pay the costs.

Behavioral evidence of the public's conflicted views can be seen in sales figures for light trucks (i.e., SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks). Despite the high cost of gasoline in recent years, about half of all new car sales were light trucks, although they are less fuel efficient than passenger cars. Moreover, the best-selling car in America was the Ford F-series. Thus, although the public says that it wants fuel-efficient automobiles, many people actually buy fuel-inefficient cars, trucks, and SUVs.

Survey data also reveal the public's desire for low-cost energy. During the spring of 2000, when oil prices surged, an April Gallup poll found that 80% of the public favored lowering state fuel oil taxes, 75% favored reducing federal gasoline taxes, and 59% favored drawing oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to put more oil on the market and cut prices (Gallup, 2000). The 2000–2001 electricity crisis in California provides further evidence of the public's desire for cheap energy. A May, 2001 Field Institute poll asked Californians, “Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the federal government to cap energy prices?” Seventy percent said it was a good thing (Field Institute (2001)). More recently, when faced with high gasoline prices, a May, 2012 Gallup Poll found that 85% of the American public said that the president and Congress should “take immediate actions to try to control the price of gas” (Gallup (2012)).

Most economists tell us that capping or subsidizing energy prices during shortages is foolish. If prices are allowed to rise freely, consumers will use less energy, and the energy problems will be resolved by free market forces. In contrast, if prices are capped or if energy consumption is subsidized, more energy will be used and shortages will worsen—potentially leading to lines at gasoline stations, electricity blackouts, or other problems.

Unlike economists, most of the public likes energy subsidies and dislikes free market solutions to energy shortages, but this does not mean that people are rejecting free market economics. Instead, many people believe that energy shortages are faked by energy companies to increase prices and profits. From the first energy crisis to the most recent, polls have consistently showed that the public blames the energy providers for high prices. In 1974 for example, a Roper poll asked, “Some people say there is a real shortage of gasoline and fuel oil because demand has outrun supply. Others say there really isn't a shortage of gasoline and fuel oil and the big companies are holding it back for their own advantage. What do you think––that there is or is not a real shortage of gasoline and oil?” (Richman (1979)). Seventy-three percent said there was no real shortage. Similar views were expressed during every wave of gasoline price hikes since then, as well as during the 2001 California electricity crisis. Most recently, 55% of the public said that oil companies deserve “a great deal of blame” for the increases in gas prices during the spring of 2012, according to a March, 2012 CNN/ORC Poll (Polling Report.com (2013)).

Apparently, the public's reasoning is that the energy industries cause supply shortages and high prices by manipulating energy markets. In other words, high prices are the result of illegal or unethical activity. Given this situation, people can easily jump to the conclusion that the government should step in and fix the problem with price caps, subsidies, or other measures.

Here, the public's lack of knowledge about energy policy plays a role. In every energy crisis the United States has faced, politicians and activists have accused energy companies of manipulating prices. Certainly in the case of the oil crises, when people who do not even know that the United States needs to import oil to meet its energy needs hear those charges, they will be especially likely to believe them. More broadly, a mix of people's misunderstandings about the energy situation and their distrust of the energy industry may lead to poor judgments about the best energy policies for the government to adopt.

Public opposition to increases in energy prices affects more than government behavior during energy crises. Proposals for a carbon tax, such as the one offered by President Clinton in 1993 and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2013, face a skeptical public. The idea behind carbon taxes is to increase the price of fossil fuels, causing consumption to decline and consumers to switch to other fuel alternatives. Such proposals face two problems in winning public support. First, the proposals are complicated and require at least a moderate understanding of both economics and energy. Second, the proposals call for raising energy prices. These are both serious obstacles to carbon taxes.

In summary, the public generally favors environmentalist policies such as conservation and the development of alternative, sustainable power sources. However, the public also wants the government to take steps to guarantee low, stable energy prices. The contradictions among these views remain unresolved.

4. Public Opinion on Energy and Demographic Characteristics

To understand the sources of people's opinions about energy policy, it helps to examine the larger context of public opinion across a range of issues. Public opinion scholars have found that the best way to describe public opinion on domestic issues is to divide issues into two broad categories—economic and social. Economic issues are those that relate to the distribution of wealth in society—the tax system, Social Security, Medicare, welfare, regulation of businesses and unions, etc. Social issues are those that relate to values and morals—abortion, birth control, free speech, civil rights, women's rights, same-sex marriage, etc. (Shafer and Claggett (1995)). This distinction is useful for two reasons. First, people tend to have similar opinions on the two types of issues. That is, if someone is liberal on one social issue, he or she is likely to be liberal on others. Second, the two types of issues have different causes and demographic correlates. Opinions on economic issues generally vary with income and self-interest, whereas opinions on social issues usually vary with education and age.

At first glance, energy policy would seem to be a classic economic issue. Energy production is a huge economic sector. Most disputes over energy policy involve the government regulating private businesses. Regulations affect company profits, create new jobs for some people, and eliminate existing jobs held by other people. From pollution controls to protections for endangered species, regulations on the energy industry have substantial economic impacts.

In some respects, attitudes toward energy policy do respond to events in ways that are consistent with people looking at energy policy as an economic policy. An excellent example of this is the way public support for offshore oil drilling along the California coast parallels the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline. Figure 4 shows a fairly close fit between support for offshore oil drilling and the real price of gasoline. With just one exception (1980-1981), every time the price of gasoline rises, so does support for offshore drilling, and every time prices fall, support falls as well. The two time series correlate at r = 0.50. The price of gasoline—an economic consideration—clearly drives public opinion on offshore oil drilling.

[Figure 4 about here]

There is also some individual-level evidence that people think of energy issues in economic terms. For example, as the distance people commute to work increases, they become more likely to favor offshore oil drilling and other steps to increase oil production and cut prices. That is, economic self-interest affects attitudes toward energy policy in some cases.

However, the classic patterns of economic issues do not appear. Opinions on energy issues generally do not vary with income, occupation, or other measures of social class. A few studies have found that attitudes on energy policy vary with income, but these studies are outnumbered by the studies that found no relationships.

For the most part, attitudes toward environmental issues, including energy issues, behave like attitudes toward most social issues. Two key indicators of this pattern are the relationships that energy attitudes have with education and age. On virtually every social issue, the most liberal people in the population are the well educated and the young. The basis for the education–social issue relationship seems to be that education brings people into contact with new ideas and new types of people and broadens the perspectives of the well educated. This process develops a greater tolerance for people who are different—blacks, the disabled, gays and lesbians—and a greater appreciation of ideas such as the value of the environment.

Age is also related to opinions on social issues, but not because age causes beliefs or opinions. Instead, age is related to opinions on social issues because age reflects the generations in which people grew up and were socialized. Throughout the past century, the United States has been moving in a more socially liberal direction. Ideas such as racial and gender equality, which were once considered radical, are now generally accepted. Ideas such as gay rights, which were once never even discussed, are now on the leading edge of social change. Similarly, the modern environmental movement began in the 1960s. Therefore, people who grew up and were socialized before the 1960s are less likely to hold environmentalist views than those raised during the environmental era.

The relationship between education and support for conventional energy sources over alternative sources is typical of relationships between education and questions about energy policy. Figure 5 presents the results of a March, 2012 poll conducted by the PEW Research Center for the People & the Press. Respondents were asked, “Right now, which one of the following do you think should be the more important priority for addressing America’s energy supply—developing alternative sources, such as wind, solar and hydrogen technology, or expanding exploration and production of oil, coal and natural gas?” Forty-seven percent of Americans with a high school education or less said that developing alternative sources should be the priority, whereas 59% of college graduates held that view. The better educated the respondents were, the more they favored alternative energy.

The relationship between age and preferred energy sources in the PEW poll is even stronger. As Fig. 6 shows, 64% of the 18 to 29-year-old respondents favored protecting the environment, whereas only 35% of those 65 or older did so—a 29% difference across the generations. This finding is typical in that age has been found to be the demographic characteristic yielding the strongest, most consistent differences on environmental issues.

Other demographic variables are also related to opinions on environmental and energy-related issues, although not as strongly or consistently as education and age. Gender is usually related to attitudes toward energy issues, but only if the issue entails some aspect of risk to people. When risk is involved, women tend to take the pro-environmental stand. For example, women tend to oppose nuclear power more than men do because many people in the public regard nuclear power as risky. In contrast, men and women hold similar preferences regarding conventional vs. alternative energy development because those choices are not seen as inherently risky by the public.

Race, ethnicity, and whether one lives in a rural or urban area have also been found to relate to environmental and energy issues in a number of studies, but the relationships do not consistently fall in a single direction. That is, in some studies blacks have been found to hold more pro-environmental views than whites; in other studies, the reverse pattern has been found. Studies of urban and rural dwellers yield similar results. The relationships often can be seen to depend on the exact issue in question. Location of hazardous waste dumps, for example, is of more concern to people living near proposed sites than those living at great distance. The demographic characteristics of those living near the dumps, therefore, may determine what studies find. Consequently, broad generalizations are difficult to make.

5. Public Opinion and Political Orientations

A second way to explain public opinion on energy issues is to examine people's political orientations and worldviews. By far the most important political orientation is party identification. Party identification is a way in which people think of themselves—a psychological and emotional attachment to a political party. People identify with political parties in the same way they identify with ethnicities or religions. Native-born Americans typically acquire a party identification from their parents by age 9 or 10—long before they understand anything about the substance of politics.

The importance of party identification stems from the way in which it influences people's opinions and behavior. Party identification influences people's opinions because it guides their decisions about what to believe or disbelieve when they listen to the news or political discussions among friends. People who think of themselves as Democrats, for example, are far more likely than others to believe Democratic politicians and doubt Republican politicians. Similarly, Republicans trust fellow Republicans but not Democrats. As a result, both groups' view of reality is filtered through their partisan beliefs. In addition, party identification influences people's values. When a politician of one's political party says that climate change is both real and a serious threat to the country or that it is junk science, one's opinion is likely to be swayed. As a result of differing beliefs about the facts and differing opinions, the behavior of Democrats and Republicans differs as well. In voting and in a wide range of political activities, Democrats and Republican normally choose opposing sides.

In the world of politics, the Republican Party generally represents business interests and the wealthier segments of society, whereas the Democratic Party represents the working-class and lower income segments. Because environmental regulations are constraints on businesses, Republicans have usually been far less supportive of them than have Democrats. As a result, Republicans have generally leaned in a pro-development direction, whereas Democrats have generally leaned in a pro-environment direction.

These partisan patterns can easily be seen both in national political disputes and in public opinion data on energy issues. The fight over whether to approve development of the Keystone XL pipeline is a good example. In the 2012 presidential election, unemployment and economic growth ranked among the issues of greatest importance to the public. The Keystone XL pipeline would generate a number of jobs across Midwest states as well as produce significant tax revenue; however, environmentalists objected to the pipeline because of the greenhouse gases emitted by the tar sands oil production for which the pipeline was designed. As a result, a partisan dispute emerged over whether to build the pipeline with most Republicans supporting it and most Democrats opposing it.

Table III shows the partisan breakdown of support for Keystone Xl and hydraulic fracturing, two prominent energy options.

[Table III about here]

As shown, in the case of Keystone XL the majority of the public is in favor of its development. The only opposition comes from Democrats, in which case 54% are in favor of the pipeline and 34% are opposed. On the other hand, more typical partisan divisions are found in the case of hydraulic fracturing, “fracking.” While 66% of Republicans are in favor of the energy option, only 33% of Democrats share that sentiment.

Similar partisan differences exist across many energy-related and environmental issues. A March, 2012 Pew Research Center report found sharp differences regarding whether to allow more oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans favored it, 64% of Independents, and 50% of Democrats. Support for increased use of nuclear power also broke along party lines with 54% of Republicans in favor, 45% of Independents, 37% of Democrats. The same pattern held with giving tax cuts for oil and gas exploration (61% of Republicans in favor, 42% of Independents, and 38% of Democrats). On issues advocated by environmentalists, the partisan pattern reversed. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans, 77% of Independents, and 88% of Democrats supported requiring better fuel efficiency for vehicles. Similarly, spending more on mass transit was favored by 52% of Republicans, 67% of Independents, 74% of Democrats, and more federal funding for alternative energy research received the support of 52% of Republicans, 70% of Independents, and 81% of Democrats. Other national and state polls routinely find similar partisan differences, with Republicans typically comprising the group that prefers conventional energy development and Democrats comprising the group that prefers conservation and alternative energy sources.

Another political orientation that helps explain public opinion on energy and environmental issues is ideological self-identification—that is, whether people consider themselves to be liberal, moderate, or conservative. Ideological self-identification is a curious characteristic. Pollsters ask respondents a question such as “Generally speaking, in politics do you consider yourself as conservative, liberal, middle-of-the-road, or don't you think of yourself in those terms?” The terms liberal and conservative are in wide use in public debate. However, repeated studies for more than 50 years show that only approximately half the public can offer even crude definitions of what the labels mean. Typically, approximately one-third of respondents say “I don't know” when asked for a definition. Another one-sixth will offer definitions that are not even remotely recognizable. Nevertheless, the ideological labels that people give themselves predict their opinions relatively well, including their opinions on many energy issues.

Environmental problems emerged as political issues relatively recently in comparison with traditional economic conflicts over labor laws, welfare systems, and tax codes. Nevertheless, when they did begin to draw the public's attention in the 1960s, liberal leaders argued for laws imposing clean air standards, clean water standards, and other pro-environmental regulations. Conservative leaders argued against allowing the government to impose new regulations on businesses. Environmentalism quickly became an established part of liberalism, whereas pro-development views became part of the conservative agenda. This liberal–conservative distinction on environmental issues spread quickly among both political leaders and the public.

Table IV shows the ideological divisions over the dispute about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and offshore drilling. Ninety percent of conservative republicans are in favor of drilling in ANWR and 91% are in favor of offshore drilling more generally. This compares to 66% of liberal Democrats who oppose drilling in ANWR and 53% who oppose offshore oil drilling. The division based on ideology is clear, although liberal Democrats are more divided on their opinions between ANWR and offshore oil.

[Table IV about here]

Taken together, party identification and ideological self-identification do a much better job of explaining opinion on energy issues than do demographic variables. Nevertheless, opinions on environmental and energy-related issues are not understood or explained as well by public opinion scholars as opinions in other areas (e.g., welfare and civil rights). Given the importance of public opinion to policy makers, research in this area continues.

6. The Role of Energy Disasters in Public Opinion and Policy

Energy disasters—especially those in which people lose their lives—have been important causes of shifts in both public opinion and energy policy. Similarly to other public policy issues, energy disasters act as focusing events, drawing media and public attention to problems and setting the stage for politicians and regulators to act.

The importance of energy disasters can best be understood if we consider their role in agenda setting. The political agenda is the set of issues on which the media and politicians focus at any given time. The agenda is small because the media and politicians only have enough time to deal with a few major issues at once. For example, when President Obama entered office in 2009, he first worked with Congress on legislation to rebuild the economy and then turned his attention to climate change and the American Clean Energy and Security Act. They did not have enough time to address the economy, climate change, Social Security, healthcare, and immigration reform simultaneously—although all of these issues needed attention.
Researchers studying agenda setting have found that in order to bring about major policy change, three “streams” must come together—problems, policies, and politics. Problems have to be recognized and defined. Problems are framed so that particular aspects of them stand out. For example, nuclear power is currently framed primarily in terms of safety; its high cost is rarely mentioned by either the news media or politicians. Policy options to address a problem must also be available. For example, although there is a good deal of discussion of steps that can be taken to minimize climate change, carbon capture from cars is not under consideration because there is no practical method to do it. Finally, the political situation must be ready for change. Public opinion must be receptive or even demanding of change and elected officials must decide to push for it.
Energy disasters contribute to both the problem and politics streams. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, both drew the public’s attention to the problem of offshore oil drilling and framed it as a potential threat to lives, jobs, and ecosystems. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in April, 2010, just prior to the spill, reported 70% of the public in favor of increasing oil and gas drilling in U.S. coastal areas. After the BP incident, the percentage in favor dropped to 54% in May and then 44% in June, according to follow up surveys. The surge of public opinion against deep water drilling led to a six-month moratorium on offshore oil drilling and the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service.
There is a long record of energy disasters leading to changes in energy policy. Although some cases predate public opinion polls and others were not the subjects of polls, there is little doubt that the public’s response to the disasters caused politicians to take action. The 1907 Monongah coal mine disaster, in which 362 miners lost their lives, led to the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines by Congress. After the New London Consolidated High School gas explosion in 1937, the Texas Legislature acted in response to public pressure, passing the Engineering Registration Act, which mandated the addition of thiols to natural gas and regulated engineering practices. Following the Cleveland East Ohio gas explosion in 1944, industry took action, moving natural gas storage underground to prevent future problems.
Oil disasters are among the most prominent energy disasters in our nation’s history and have had perhaps the greatest impact on U.S. public opinion and policy. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill helped spark the modern environmental movement. Congress reacted by passing the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and President Nixon responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and placing a moratorium on new leases for offshore drilling along the California coast. Two decades later, the sinking of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 forced Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. These spills, as well as others, have also initiated shifts within the oil and gas industry to exhibit corporate social responsibility to the public.
Nuclear power accidents have also had substantial impacts on public opinion and policy. In 1979, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor had a partial meltdown. Panic ensued when the governor of Pennsylvania suggested that pregnant women and children be evacuated. This came just two weeks after the release of The China Syndrome, a movie portraying a near meltdown in a fictional nuclear reactor in California. In a strangely prescient line, a character playing a physicist tells Michael Douglas that a meltdown would “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.” Public support for nuclear power had been drifting down for a number of years, but when the disaster struck there was a sharp drop from 50% in favor to 39%, according to Cambridge Research International polls. Although public support partially bounced back, the incident effectively ended the expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. No new nuclear power plants were started from 1979 until the 2000s. In 1986, anti-nuclear public sentiment was given another jolt when a meltdown and large radiation release occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Public opinion again shifted against nuclear power and politicians feared to defy the public’s will.
The last decade has seen a gradual shift to greater support for nuclear power. This has come in response to growing demands for energy security and for low carbon dioxide emitting sources of energy to minimize global warming. In March, 2001, a Gallup Poll showed that 46% of the public favored expanding the use of nuclear power, by March, 2006, 56% were in favor, rising to 62% in 2010. In the spring of 2011 a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan, significantly damaging the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and causing the release of radioactive contamination. Support for nuclear power, however, only dropped slightly, with 57% of the public still in favor of nuclear energy according to Gallup Polls conducted in March, 2011 and March, 2012. The Obama administration had been promoting greater reliance on nuclear power. In his 2010 State of the Union, President Obama stated “[To] create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” Nuclear power was left out of the 2012 and 2013 State of the Union addresses, most likely in direct response to Fukushima. The Fukushima disaster dampened any significant push towards greater reliance on this form of energy in the U.S.
Most recently, oil pipeline spills along the Kalamazoo River, Yellowstone River, and in Arkansas have raised concern regarding the risks of transporting tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. These have come at the same time as TransCanada seeks approval from the State Department for construction of the Keystone XL expansion project. There have been a number of public and political reactions as a result. Interest group outcry has been significant, a number of environmental groups have staged protests outside of the White House in opposition to Keystone XL, and the Sierra Club lifted its one hundred year old ban on disobedience in the spring of 2013. Accusations of collusion between members of the State Department and TransCanada forced President Obama to postpone a decision on the pipeline until new impact assessments were performed. Additionally, public and political opposition to the original proposed route pushed TransCanada to propose a new route that does not travel over the Ogallala Aquifer. However, an April, 2013 poll conducted by the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press found that 66% of the public supports construction of the pipeline. Which side wins has yet to be decided. It is likely that the public will continue to play a major role in the approval process.


Public opinion plays an important role in energy policy despite evidence that the average American knows very little about most public policy issues. Values, political ideology, and demographics are reliable predictors of public sentiment towards energy options that pose risk to life and/or the environment. In general, certain segments of the population view offshore oil drilling, nuclear power, and exploration in ANWR as risky, while others contend that these are necessary to maintain domestic energy reserves. A similar split is found between Democrats and Republicans, with most Democrats in opposition to these energy developments and most Republicans in favor. On energy issues, the public remains deeply divided. Of particular importance is the role that focusing events have played in setting the agenda for energy policy. Dating back to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the more recent Fukushima disaster, energy accidents heighten awareness in the public and Congress, often resulting in a reassessment of future energy plans. Given the expansion of tar sands production and hydraulic fracturing, it is likely that such events, along side public opinion, will continue to steer the country towards certain options and away from others in the foreseeable future.

Change History

  1. H. Hodges and E. Smith updated sections 1-5, including figures 1-6 and tables I-IV, and added a new section 6 on the role of energy disasters in public opinion and public policy.


Ansolabehere, S. (2007). Public attitudes toward America’s energy options. MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems. MIT, Boston, MA.
Caruso, D. (2010). Exxon Mobil to pay $25M in NYC oil spill settlement. The Huffington Post. November 17, 2010.
Easton, R.O. (1972). Black tide: the Santa Barbara oil spill and its consequences. New York, New York: Delacorte Press.
Field Institute (2001). Residents’ reaction to California’s energy crisis (part II). www.field.com. Release #2001.
Gallup Polls (2000). “Majority of Americans Still Unaffected by Higher Gas Prices.” April 6, 2000. www.gallup.com.
Highfield, R. (2007). Windscale fire: ‘We were too busy to panic.’ The Telegraph. October 9, 2007.
Muskal, M. (2013). BP pleads guilty to manslaughter in 2010 gulf oil spill. Los Angeles Times. January 29, 2013.
Polling Report.Com (2013). Energy. www.pollingreport.com.
Richman, A. “The polls: public attitudes toward the energy crisis.” Public Opinion Quarterly 43 (1979): 576-585.
Shafer, B., and W. J. M. Claggett (2003). The two majorities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University.
Smith, E.R.A.N. (2002). Energy, the environment, and public opinion. Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, CO .

See Also the Following Articles

Energy Development on Public Land in the United States; Hydropower Resettlement Projects, Socioeconomic Impacts of; Lifestyles and Energy; Media Portrayals of Energy; Public Reaction to Electricity Transmission Lines; Public Reaction to Nuclear Power Siting and Disposal; Public Reaction to Offshore Oil; Public Reaction to Renewable Energy Sources and Systems


economic issues

Political issues that relate to the distribution of wealth in society.

party identification

A way in which people think of themselves; a psychological and emotional attachment to a political party.

social issues

Political issues that relate to values and morals.

Further Reading

Ansolabehere, S. (2007). Public attitudes toward americas energy options: insights for nuclear energy. MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, MIT-NES-TR-008.

Ansolabehere, S., & Konisky, D. M. (2009). Public attitudes toward construction of new power plants. Public Opinion Quarterly73(3), 566-577.
Bolsen, T., & Cook, F. L. (2008). The Polls—Trends Public Opinion on Energy Policy: 1974–2006. Public Opinion Quarterly72(2), 364-388.
Jones, R.E.; Dunlap, R.E., The social bases of environmental concern: Have they changed over time, Rural Sociol. 57 (1992) 28–47.
Kempton, W.; Boster, J.S.; Hartley, J.A., Environmental Values and American Culture. (1995) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA .
Smith, E.R.A.N., Energy, the Environment, and Public Opinion. (2002) Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, CO.

Relevant Web Pages

Gallup. www.gallup.com

PEW Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/
PollingReport.com. http://www.pollingreport.com/

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