America’s Magical Thinking on Energy

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Energy—never has a political topic had so many bold words expended on it with so little to show. As Jon Stewart pointed out in his usual skewering fashion last week, the last eight American presidents promised to move America off oil and onto renewable energy, and all we have to show for it is increasing dependence on foreign petroleum, rising carbon emissions and an out of control gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Energy is one of those bipartisan issues that any politician can dust off—usually whenever gasoline prices have gotten a little high—promise to change and then promptly drop until the next crisis. Most of our politicians seem to lack what you’d need to really change how America uses energy:  the will to take on the strong fossil fuel lobby and the persistence to see changes through over the long-term.

But we all bear responsibility for that failure, because we fail to see—and take—the hard choices that would be necessary. We’d rather live in energy fairyland, as a new New York Times/CBS News poll demonstrates. The poll surveyed the attitudes of Americans—with specific attention on Gulf coast residents—toward the oil spill, energy policy, the economy, President Barack Obama and BP. The news is not good for Obama—the economy and employment remain the top concerns of Americans, bigger than the oil spill, but 54% of the public says he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs, and 48% of the public disapproves of his handling of the economy. 60% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

The frustrating numbers, though, come on energy policy. 59% of Americans polled believe it is very or somewhat likely that within the next 25 years the U.S. will develop an alternative to oil as our major source of energy. That might hearten greens but it also shows how unrealistic Americans are on energy. Right now fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—are responsible for 85% of America’s energy supply, and it would take a Herculean effort to displace oil in just a quarter century.

Now, maybe the oil spill means that Americans are finally willing to make that effort. But the other answers on the poll show that’s not the case. Even though 58% of Americans believe U.S. energy policy needs a fundamental change, 51% of the public say they’d oppose a gasoline tax that would pay for the development of renewable energy, compared to 45% who would support it. If that tax were set at $1.00 a gallon, the percentage who would favor it drops to 32%. The sole sign that there may be some awareness of where we are on energy—and oil—was the fact that 65% of Americans believe Obama’s temporary moratorium on offshore drilling, while an investigation of the Deepwater Horizon accident is carried out, is a good idea. (Although 49% of Gulf coast residents believe it’s a bad idea—and bafflingly, more Gulf coast residents than Americans as a whole believe BP will fairly compensate those affected by the spill, despite all the complaints we’ve heard about the company’s claims process.)

It’s always a mistake to read too much into one poll (and you can find the raw data here), but to me this survey helps explain why energy policy seems immovable. We don’t really want to understand it—and that ignorance saves us from having to make the hard choices. At least for now.