Energy Perception And Policy Reality

17 Oct

As the election nears, energy policy remains a regular topic on the campaign trail. Controversial subjects like arctic drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue making headlines as the political class debate our nation’s changing energy mix. But let’s not deceive ourselves, or the public at large, about a president’s real role and reach.

Although certain real-world outcomes will be dependent on voters this November, the rhetoric may not match the reality on some fronts this election season. For example, coal supporters generally favor Mitt Romney, yet the United States will become ever less dependent on coal no matter who wins due to abundantly available natural gas. Likewise, opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline typically rally around President Obama, even though that project will probably roll ahead regardless of the victor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the vast disconnect between perception and reality has to do with gasoline prices. According to the latest poll numbers, 45 percent of Americans ranked the cost of gasoline as the energy topic they would most like to see the candidates address during the presidential debates. For comparison, U.S. energy security was the second-most-popular response, garnering a total of just 10 percentage points. Other choices, such as energy efficiency, climate change and offshore drilling, did not break out of the single digits.

Politicians are acutely attuned to the interests of their constituents. So it’s not surprising that gas prices featured prominently in speeches at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We have been hearing a good deal of related rhetoric for years. The price we pay at the pump memorably took central stage in Michele Bachmann’s campaign during the summer of 2011 when she told crowds she would reduce the cost of gasoline.

“Under President Bachmann you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again,” she promised. “That will happen.”

Of course, Bachmann never outlined just how she would achieve this feat because a sitting president cannot simply make it so. What she didn’t understand — and what most voters do not seem to grasp — is that gasoline prices are tied to a global crude oil market. Therefore, even if our government goes so far as to enact policies that expand domestic drilling, the excess production at home could very well be offset by other factors, such as reduced OPEC production.

But right or wrong, voters’ perceptions on these issues do matter tremendously. Tomorrow’s energy solutions require more than cutting-edge technologies and carefully crafted legislation. Public opinion — what people really think about energy — plays the most critical role in shaping America’s energy future.

Personal attitudes, concerns, and priorities are determined by more than just “the facts.” We take into account stories in the media, the talking points of politicians, vocal celebrities and religious leaders, as well as the opinions of family and friends. All of these perspectives flow together to, in the aggregate, influence which energy issues our representatives — regional and national — address through policy and legislation.

Just weeks before we go to the polls, there are countless partisan claims being made regarding where Obama and Romney sit on every hot-button issue. But in reality, national energy strategies don’t fit so neatly into red or blue compartments. The boundaries are blurry, motivated by more than a candidate’s platform. Energy policies often cross party lines and we must open our eyes to when and where they do. More importantly, we must, at times, be willing to cross party lines along with them.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

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