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Energy policy and uninformed opinion

Energy policy and uninformed opinion thumbnail

Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to respond to questions about the direction of the economy and financial markets by saying: “I answer because I’m asked not because I know.”

Such is also the case with poorly informed members of the public whose views pollsters seek on every conceivable topic including energy. A recent Gallup poll asked a sampling of Americans whether they believe the United States will face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.

Some 31 percent responded yes, the lowest number on record since the question was first asked in 1978 (though it was not asked again by Gallup until 2001.) In 2012, the last time the question appeared in a Gallup survey, the number was 50 percent. The highest result came, not surprisingly, in 2008 when oil was making its historic climb to an all-time high of $147 per barrel. In March of that year (five months before the oil price peak) some 62 percent of American respondents thought the United States would face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.

There is, of course, the problem of what “critical energy shortage” means to each respondent. Prices for all varieties of energy were elevated in 2008, but there weren’t any critical shortages–just very high prices which made it impossible for some to afford as much energy as they would like.

Currently, in the face of gasoline prices which have fallen to $2.11 per gallon nationally and natural gas prices that recently touched lows reminiscent of the late 1990s, it is remarkable that even 31 percent still think critical energy shortages could show up within five years. That belief be may the after-effect of the highest average daily prices on record for crude oil four years running from 2011 through 2014.

That 66 percent seem unconcerned may represent those whose opinions merely follow the prevailing trend–which in energy prices for the moment seems to be down. Interestingly, 1 percent said we are already in such a shortage, the same percentage who said it in the high-energy-price year of 2008. In this year’s survey, only 2 percent said they had no opinion, a rare admission among opinionated Americans.

The urgency with which the United States and the world treats energy issues has to do in part with whether the public thinks there is a problem. And, Americans don’t think there is a problem with low-priced energy as is evidenced by a political past littered with such unpopular taxes as President Jimmy Carter’s Windfall Profits Tax aimed at U.S. oil companies benefiting from the deregulation of oil prices; presidential candidate John Anderson’s 50-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax (offset by a 50 percent reduction in Social Security taxes); President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated BTU tax; and now Barak Obama’s proposed oil tax.

All of these except the Windfall Profits Tax presumed that America’s energy consumption was excessive and sought either to reduce it and/or to shift it to renewable energy sources.

It used to be that the public needed only to concern itself with the supply of energy–or rather the supply of affordable energy. Now, it is obliged to think along two axes, one relating to supply and another relating to climate change since the vast majority of our energy still comes from the burning of fossil fuels which emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.

To ask people their views about energy without asking about their views regarding climate change is more than just a careless oversight. It misses what is perhaps now the central issue in energy: Can we as a civilization survive the long-term side-effects of the fuels we currently use?

Put this way, the problem seems much more urgent regardless of the price. That said, informed opinion–or should I say truly informed opinion–would tell us that low energy prices endanger future energy supplies by making investment in exploration for oil and natural gas, development of alternative energy sources and investment in energy conservation measures all less attractive. Truly informed opinion would therefore poll just the opposite of mere popular opinion.

America’s tradition of anti-intellectualism puts a low premium on careful thinking, allowing the substitution of slogans for analysis. The current presidential campaign should be evidence enough of how true this is.

But there is another reason for resistance to careful thinking; it can be difficult and distressing, especially if it leads to conclusions that are uncomfortable or contrary to our current beliefs. Which brings us back to John Kenneth Galbraith who once said: “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

Conventional thinking is all we are likely to get out of polls and explains why serious energy policy thinkers continue to run up against opposition to what for a long time has been sensible energy policy, namely, dramatically reducing energy use through efficiency and conservation measures and rapidly switching to renewable sources such as wind and solar–sources that do not create the triple threat of depletion, pollution and climate change posed by fossil fuels.

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29 Comments on "Energy policy and uninformed opinion"

  1. Pennsyguy on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:01 pm 

    I read somewhere that 5% of Americans are scientifically literate, and I think that is true. Not only is this is a stealthy killer of a nation, it’s also tragic because so many never experience the sense of awe Einstein spoke of. Maybe football or celebrity scandals are a good replacement?

  2. sidzepp on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:13 pm 

    Good assessment Penny. I attempt to show coworkers charts on rising temperatures that in my estimation are fairly strait forward and they look at them like they are Hieroglyphics and then a minute later they are back on their phone looking at some stupid video that one of their friends posted

  3. Apneaman on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:13 pm 

    The U.S. ranks 33rd in acceptance of evolution

  4. sidzepp on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:18 pm 

    Perhaps the Creationists are the missing link!

  5. Apneaman on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:19 pm 

    The U.S. ranks 29th in science

  6. Apneaman on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:20 pm 

    The U.S. ranks 18th in reading

  7. onlooker on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 3:36 pm 

    How about the US ranks NO. 1 in arrogance as in manifest destiny. Coincidentally also number 1 in military spending. Not so manifest our destiny it seems.

  8. Plantagenet on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 4:02 pm 

    It’s a good thing the USA is #1 because most people can’t count much higher than that


  9. onlooker on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 4:05 pm 

    Believe or not your not too far from the truth Plant.

  10. sidzepp on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 4:38 pm 

    What greater ignorance of the American public is the fact that it was Science and Technology which led us to our current status. From the development of the steam boat to the computer age and yet most Americans feel that Adam and Eve left eden in an Escalade with five stick figures on the back window.

  11. Apneaman on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 4:45 pm 

    and a fish.

  12. Anonymous on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 4:48 pm 

    Uninformed opinion. Perfect that Plant chimes in, being one of a handful of resident experts in un-informed opinion here. I can count higher than one, so your uninformed opinion is wrong-again(surprise). Once the rest of his equally uninformed friends weigh in with their equally dubious opinions, priceless. Im sure any moment now KenZ will be along to remind us all the Hydrogen cars are the future(tm), and that poor people are too stupid to know they are overpopulating the world.

    Oh, and you forgot to blame Obama for the rise of baseless, uninformed opinion Plant.

  13. JuanP on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 5:08 pm 

    All human beings are stupid, arrogant, ignorant, selfish, and/or delusional mentally ill pricks.
    US citizens and residents are human beings.
    Therefore, …
    I love logic!

  14. penury on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 6:33 pm 

    Cognitive disconnect. I suppose that would appear stupid to the questioner,and as they said extreme energy crisis has as many meaning as you want. To most people you are talking to their wallet, not their understanding.By the way Juan P and Apneaman have the correct answer.

  15. energyskeptic on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 6:40 pm 

    We’re wired to think tomorrow will be the same as the past, and can’t even imagine being hungry again after a big meal. Besides, believing there’s endless fossil fuels allows a guilt-free purchase of gas guzzling vehicles and not worrying about future generations. What is it about those of us following the approach of energy collapse that makes us different? I know plenty of science writers, scientists, skeptics, and engineers who think a techno-fix is just around the corner, so it is more than just scientific illiteracy…

  16. makati1 on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 7:11 pm 

    “There is, of course, the problem of what “critical energy shortage” means to each respondent.” Peak oil ranks right up there with slippery (pun intended) meanings. What is “peak oil’?

    As for American intelligence: another oxymoron like ‘military intelligence’.

    Is it a result of degrading ability or the deliberate dumbing down of the sheeple so they can be used by their own government/elite? What contributes to their decline?

    Teacher’s unions, where the buck is more valuable than the ability/desire to teach.

    Colleges that teach them that they should be hurt and upset when someone writes “Vote Trump” on the sidewalk with chalk.

    Corruption in government, military and finances that make any 3rd world country look saintly.

    The widespread use of distracting I-toys that waste their lives on trivia.

    And food that is adulterated with so many chemicals, genetically modified ingredients, fats, sugars and salt that they are unable to get a clear mind even if they wanted to. Not to mention drugs of every sort, legal and other.

    No, America is dying. It is sad to watch, but cannot be cured. It took generations to get to this point and the country does not have generations to fix it, even if they wanted to. But, they don’t. Most are not even aware that it is happening. Those who do are either the cause, or they are the ‘outsiders’ like many here who are looking in from an enlightened position. So be it.

    Pass the popcorn.

  17. dooma on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 9:43 pm 

    I think that the problem with the question asked in the polls was that it contained too many “big words” in a row.

    Unfortunately, it is no different than in my country.

    And lacked a single word used regularly on TV-with the exception of “energy”.

    And why would people with an imaginary friend called Jesus worry about trivial things like energy shortages? His dad has more power than 5,000,000 nuclear power stations. So he will look after things. And Jesus is coming back real soon, he just has a bit of stage-fright.

  18. Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Sun, 27th Mar 2016 11:08 pm 

    Most Americans can’t find Florida on a world map. Americans are the stupidest variation of the human species to ever walk the earth. Most citizens of the United States of America can’t name a country that starts with the letter ‘U’. Anyone who doubts the depths of American retardedness simply needs to turn on any American TV station at any hour of the day and watch it for about 45 min. There are good reasons why most people on the planet dislike Americans and most people will smile if they hear news that you are suffering.

  19. makati1 on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 12:04 am 

    Truth, I think 45 minutes of US TV would be considered torture in any other country. LOL

  20. joe on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 2:27 am 

    In the next 5 years i would be certain the chances of a crisis in oil (not energy) will occur. Russia is constantly mistaken for being an oil country, Russias real value is as a gas supplier, as we saw with Ukraine.
    As North Sea oil depletes, the UK will vanish as a major power and join its neighbour Ireland as a rock in the sea. Britain will begin to do two things, throw its weight around in Europe to secure energy supplies (this is where Russia comes in) export its excess labour and endure massive social change. The next US President faces a choice to either continue Obamas game of playing Iran against Saudi to keep Iraq and Opec weak or face a massive price spike as peak oil reality returns. PNACs plan clearly failed, it led to the rise of Islamism which will ultimately defeat Zionism as it’s willing to pay any cost, also supporting military dictatorships like Eygpt will keep America as the local bad guy, and this obviously serves Saudi interests. In the end, population growth and natural depletion of easy oil will drive prices back up, which means tight oil will have to make up an ever bigger portion of the export market in the decades ahead, eventually oil will become too expensive to use as a transport fuel, as it does its going to become just for plastic and chemicals, when it does the economics of oil switches from a primary source of economic power to a secondary source for development, when it does, nobody will care about Saudi and UAE oil.
    Developed countries will have enough of their own problems by then anyway.

  21. Davy on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 6:44 am 

    “Oil Enthusiasts Stay Out of Rally Led by Shrinking Bearish Bets”

    “As crude has soared 50 percent since Feb. 11, the number of bets on increased prices has barely budged. Instead, the upward pressure on prices appears to have come from traders cashing out of bearish wagers at an unprecedented pace. The liquidation of short positions during the last seven weeks covered by data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission was the largest on record.”

    “The dollar’s advance also weighed on oil after Federal Reserve officials signaled their expectation for another interest-rate increase.”

    “When energy markets get loaded to one side of the boat like that, you can have vicious reversals,”

  22. shortonoil on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 8:00 am 

    “As crude has soared 50 percent since Feb. 11, the number of bets on increased prices has barely budged.”

    Not to nit-pick here, but 33% would be closer to the truth. Oil appears to be bottoming at around $30; which is probably close to its average worldwide lifting cost. 50% is still a long ways away from $100; producers can no longer cover their full life cycle production costs. They can not afford to replace the reserves that they are extracting. In the extractive resource industry that is going out of business by definition!

    That appears to be the taboo grounds that no one wants to enter, or talk about. How long can existing fields supply world demand. Most of them are pretty old, and in pretty bad shape. Where are all the pretty techno colored plots, graphs and 8X10 inch glossy photos to demonstrate all the oil still there to be extracted. Production rate tells us nothing about what remains; it only informs us as to how fast the industry can pump what remains out of the ground.

    Without reserve numbers (that are dictated by production cost and price) there is no Energy Policy, or informed opinion. It is basically just a “Hope and Pray” approach that the wheels will continue to turn tomorrow. To us, that appears to be a pretty crappy way to run a world economy. In which case, the claims of infinite human inventiveness have probably been grossly over stated!

  23. penury on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 10:00 am 

    Short, the fact that people refuse to discuss the state of the old fields is the program. If the average member of society were to know the truth, it might interfere with some of the plans of the .01 per cent. By the time the average person is aware of the problems coming they will be in trouble up to their ears. And no one could have seen it coming.

  24. shortonoil on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 10:16 am 

    “it might interfere with some of the plans of the .01 per cent.”

    Now– that couldn’t be the same 0.01% that owns those fields could it?
    That’s probably one of those dad-nab conspiracy theories!

  25. dissident on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 2:03 pm 

    Stupidity of the masses is a policy in the USA. The primary school system is a total joke where you have “learning is fun” applied and the students learn finger painting instead of basic mathematics. There is nothing wrong with Americans as humans and they have all the potential. But their elites want them dumb and obedient, willing to believe the excrement that the US mass media spews on basically every subject of importance.

    A well educated public making autonomous decisions is a threat to the US system.

  26. Apneaman on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 2:18 pm 

    Pipeline companies threaten liens on oil producers that don’t pay

    “The moves reflect intensifying concern that debt-burdened firms – if they survive at all – could renege on shipping commitments made when oil fetched closer to $100 (U.S.) a barrel. It is an abrupt shock for a segment of the industry long viewed by investors as a safe harbour with little direct exposure to the downturn.”

  27. Apneaman on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 2:43 pm 

    Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more absurd.

    Maths – the new scapegoat.

    Is algebra an unnecessary stumbling block in US schools?

    “This is where their hopes and aspirations go to die,” Klipple said. “They’re in college to try to make a better life for themselves, and they’re stopped by mathematics.”

    I could have been great if it weren’t for “the man” oppressing me with all those numbers N stuff.

    Death to maths!!!!!

  28. Apneaman on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 5:38 pm 

    7 million Americans at risk of man-made earthquakes, USGS says

    “Earthquakes are a natural hazard — except when they’re man-made. The oil and gas industry has aggressively adopted the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to shatter subsurface shale rock and liberate the oil and gas lurking there. But the process results in tremendous amounts of chemical-laden wastewater. Horizontal drilling for oil can also produce massive amount of natural, unwanted salt water. The industry disposes of this wastewater by pumping it into deep wells.

    And the Earth moves.”

    Induced Earthquakes Raise Chances of Damaging Shaking in 2016

  29. makati1 on Mon, 28th Mar 2016 9:26 pm 

    Ap, maybe they can spend that education money on more creation museums? After all, you don’t need math or science to tote a weapon in some sandlot country. Even reading or writing is has minimal use. Think of the billion$ that could be diverted to “protecting America” if they closed the schools.

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