Ignorance is rife on energy issues

Although we Americans have one of the best educational systems on the planet, our lack of understanding about energy is appalling. We know we need energy for heating and cooling, lights and cooking, traveling and communications, and certainly for the myriad electronic gadgets that keep us connected. But we have little knowledge about energy itself. Rather we are content to flip a switch or turn a key without considering the necessity of energy to our daily lives.

Nor do we demonstrate much curiosity about energy. A September 2013 poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin shows a disconnect between most Americans and energy issues. Seventy percent are concerned about the portion of our household budgets that we spend on energy, but we get terrible scores on energy literacy.

More than half (58 percent) believe Saudi Arabia is our largest supplier of foreign oil, which is wrong, and only 13 percent know that the United States gets more oil from Canada than any other country. Furthermore, only 46 percent of men and 20 percent of women described themselves as knowledgeable about energy.

What’s worse, only 14 percent of respondents had read, seen or heard about energy issues daily, and they admitted that they were less likely to seek information about energy than the year before. “There’s unquestionably lack of understanding across a broad swath of energy issues that affect each of us,” said UT Poll Director Sheril Kirshenbaum.

This lack of interest is concerning for at least two reasons: First, American voters will be going to the polls this fall to elect congressional representatives who are likely to make major decisions on energy issues. And secondly, consumers who admit to having little energy information are easy prey for misleading campaign ads.

Consider the way some groups have smeared hydraulic fracturing. To hear them tell it, this tried-and-true 60-year-old technology poisons water, destroys the environment, and puts human health at risk. Even Hollywood actors and musical performers, including Yoko Ono, have gotten on the bandwagon against fracking.

Who tends to believe this overblown politically-inspired rhetoric? Women might be the most susceptible. The UT poll shows 42 percent of women believe their personal actions affect the environment. Combine this willingness to accept responsibility for the environment with their acknowledged lack of energy information, and it appears women could be predisposed to believe falsehoods about fracking.

Women already have accepted plenty of other responsibilities, including providing for themselves and their families. A 2013 Pew Research Center analysis found 40 percent of all U.S. households with children under the age of 18 depend on women for their sole or primary source of income. In 1960, the figure was just 11 percent. Women now comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce (47 percent), and 65 percent of married mothers with children held jobs in 2011, up from 37 percent in 1968. Other studies show that women also say they make 60 percent of the nation’s new car-buying decisions and spend more time behind the wheel than men. 

According to a 2002 Surface Transportation Policy Project study, the average woman drives 29 miles each day, spends more than an hour driving, and makes more than five stops along the way. Working mothers carry the largest share of such trips, spending 20 percent more time driving than the average of all women and 21 percent more than the average man.

With less time to devote to other pursuits, including reading a newspaper, it is understandable that most working mothers are not armed with enough facts to counteract the onslaught of anti-fracking or anti-Keystone pipeline ads.  So what does this mean for America’s energy policy? It could lead to a continuation of dependence on foreign oil, fewer new energy jobs, an irrational fear of fracking, and more delays for the Keystone pipeline.

What is the solution to this ongoing problem of voters not having sufficient energy knowledge? It is information. Women and men need to understand both sides of the energy debate before forming an opinion. Economists and energy producers need to explain their operations. Elected officials need to stop using energy as a political football to score points against the opposition. And environmental groups that use fear mongering and hyperbole against traditional energy sources need to stop. Period.

Energy is vitally important to our way of life. An informed electorate armed with the facts should determine our energy future.

Pottle is founder and principal of Victoram Energy Research & Consulting in Raleigh, N.C.