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Plugged In

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Do Americans Understand Energy? Not Really.


The latest wave of the UT Energy Poll just came out (full disclosure: I am the director) and results highlight the large disconnect between energy and the American public. The poll is a nonpartisan, objective, and comprehensive nationwide survey covering topics from efficiency and voting behavior to climate change and hydraulic fracturing*. This time we included a few energy literacy questions to gauge where Americans are on important energy topics related to policy and the economy.

When asked, "Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?" 58 percent of respondents chose Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, just 13 percent chose the correct answer, Canada.

Which country do you believe is the largest foreign supplier of oil for the U.S.?

Unfortunately, a general lack of understanding was obvious beyond the few quiz-style questions. Eight-two percent of Americans want the federal government to focus on developing natural gas, yet just 38 percent of those who have even heard of hydraulic fracturing support its use in the extraction of fossil fuels. (Note: Hydraulic fracturing is inherently related to natural gas development).

Similar inconsistencies were evident throughout the results and there were also big differences in how various groups responded to the same questions. For example, while the percentage of Americans who think that climate change is occurring held steady at 72 percent, this includes 87 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Libertarians, and 68 percent of Independents.

Why should we track--or even care about--public opinion on energy issues? Because it matters. Our attitudes eventually shape future policy decisions and define global energy priorities. So it's important that we continue to pay attention.

I encourage readers to spend some time exploring the new data by political party, gender, and income using this neat interactive graphic on the UT Energy Poll website. The results may surprise you.


* To ensure the data is representative of the U.S. population, figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income are weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions based on the latest census.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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