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Do Americans Understand Energy? Not Really.

20 Oct

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.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on October 17, 2013.

Communicating Science to a Nation Watching Reality Television

10 Jul

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at The Austin Forum on communicating science. The talk is now available online:

You can watch part 2, part 3, and the Q&A by clicking on the links.

Energy 101: Register For This Excellent, Free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

6 Jun

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting in on a terrific Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called Energy 101 as it was filmed at UT Austin.

Taught by Dr. Michael Webber, the course provides an in-depth overview of all things energy from the transportation sector to climate change to the energy embedded in the food we eat. As the website describes, by becoming fluent in energy, you will be able to think critically about energy issues. Registration is free and the course will be taught in modules over 11 weeks. I highly recommend this to everyone because energy touches all of us:


This multidisciplinary course will give students an overview of energy technologies, fuels, environmental impacts and public policies. Topics will be interdisciplinary and will include an introduction to quantitative concepts in energy, including the differences among fuels and energy technologies, energy policy levers, and the societal aspects of energy, such as culture, economics, war, and international affairs. This course will cover brief snippets of energy history, use real-world examples, and look forward into the future. The course will have interactive learning modules and lecture-oriented around current events related to energy.

Watch the preview and then go sign up…

My Favorite Book This Year

28 Nov

To be fair, this one actually came out late 2011, so I should clarify that my favorite book read in 2012 is And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by biographer Charles J. Shields.

I am not normally drawn to biographies. While I expected to be interested in the life of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., I did not anticipate how much I would enjoy following his life’s journey for over 500 pages. In short, I simply couldn’t put this title down.

Having consumed most of Vonnegut’s work over the years, I knew some of the details already because he often inserts himself in his stories. There are occasional references to his childhood, his family, and most notably, heart-breaking details from his time in Dresden. But Shields masterfully brings the author to life in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

Vonnegut as a character gains many dimensions as we learn about his motivations, fears, triumphs, and shortcomings. Rather than just read this biography as a series of events that happened, Shields builds one part of his history on top of another, enveloping readers into the world of a brilliant, frustrated, fascinating, and long-suffering individual who’s words continue to have tremendous influence.

Maybe I enjoyed this book so much because at times I felt I could relate to his trials and tribulations as a writer. Perhaps it’s because I already admired Kurt Vonnegut Jr. tremendously. Or maybe it’s because I appreciate the candor with which Shields describes the way Vonnegut’s ideas and values were at times, at odds with the way he actually lived. It’s most likely some combination of all of these and more.

What I know is that this is a title that I finished many, many months ago and continue to think about. It’s left a lasting impression. And as the holidays approach, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is the perfect gift for any avid reader – and perhaps, the perfect gift for you.


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.

New UT Energy Poll Shows Voters Prefer Obama’s Energy Platform

16 Oct

AUSTIN, Texas, Oct. 16, 2012 — As the 2012 presidential election draws near, more voters say they prefer the energy policies espoused by President Barack Obama than Gov. Mitt Romney’s energy platform, according to the latest University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll results released today.

View Energy Poll Briefing Slides

While support from Democrats and Republicans fell along party lines, Obama garners more support from Libertarian voters (48 percent vs. 21 percent for Romney) and independent voters (27 percent vs. 23 percent for Romney).

Overall, 37 percent of respondents say Obama’s platform is best for the country, while 28 percent favor Romney’s views on energy. More than a third of those surveyed (35 percent) are not sure whose energy policies they prefer or are undecided.

The online nationwide survey, conducted Sept. 6–17, offers further insights into how energy issues might affect the upcoming presidential election. This is the third wave of the Energy Poll, which was launched in October 2011.

“While job creation and the economy continue to top the list of concerns, two out of three consumers say energy issues are important to them,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll. “Support for increased production of domestic energy supplies remains strong, and we’re also seeing a lot of interest in the promotion of alternative forms of energy and energy-saving technologies that crosses party lines.”

Sixty-two percent of the 2,092 poll respondents say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who says he will increase funding for scientific and university research into new energy technologies, and 58 percent would back a candidate promising to expand natural gas development.

Consumers also support an increase in renewable forms of energy, with 58 percent saying they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports additional financial incentives for companies engaged in renewable technologies. Meanwhile, 40 percent say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports decreasing the use of coal as an energy source (46 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans).

The poll also shows a notable rise in the willingness of consumers to adopt new energy technologies. Between September 2011 and September 2012, the percentage of consumers who say they will use “smart meter” technology within the next five years rose from 38 percent to 45 percent. Similarly, more consumers indicate they are likely to own a hybrid vehicle (30 percent to 36 percent during the same timeframe).

Other findings from the latest UT Energy Poll include:

  • Between March and September 2012, the percentage of respondents who say that climate change is occurring jumped from 65 percent to 73 percent. This increase occurred across all political parties (Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and independent voters) with the greatest change notable in the southern states (57 percent to 71 percent).
  • When asked to report their level of knowledge on energy issues, 45 percent of men consider themselves knowledgeable, while just 20 percent of women do.
  • Ninety-two percent of respondents are concerned about the cost of gasoline, and 63 percent are more likely to vote for a candidate promising to make it less expensive.

Data from The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll were weighted using U.S. Census Bureau figures, as well as propensity scores, to ensure the sample’s composition reflects the actual U.S. population. The poll was developed by the McCombs School of Business to provide an objective, authoritative look at consumer attitudes and perspectives on key energy issues. It is designed to help inform national discussion, business planning and policy development.

On Balancing A Blog, Career, and Motherhood

1 Oct

Lately a lot of readers have been asking why I’m not posting here as often. The truth is, a lot has changed professionally and personally since I began in 2006. I’m working hard to strike a balance between career obligations, family, and life on- and offline.

When I composed my first blog post, I was living as a policy staffer in DC. Hours on the Hill were long, but I enjoyed getting my thoughts about the convergence of science, policy, and culture down at the end of each day. Blogging felt cathartic and I did my best writing very late into the night–the same schedule I kept while composing my thesis during grad school. Sure I had a full-time job, but I was single, living in the city, with boundless energy and relatively few commitments.

By the following year, I started taking my role in the science online community more seriously. I joined Chris Mooney at Scienceblogs where we posted every day. There were far fewer science bloggers at the time and we all knew–or knew of–each other, participating in a kind of ongoing conversation. My online contributions not only helped me organize my thoughts, but also provided an informal education about journalism, leading to books about the role of science in our culture. I started writing regular articles and giving talks, while trying to include some sort of social life along the way.

By early 2012, I was traveling every week–sometimes for weeks at a time–and wading into my newest role as director of the Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. I’m also married now, with a newborn baby boy.

In other words, we grow and change. Being at the helm of university project takes a lot of planning, analysis, and time. And as for those late-nights writing until 4am? These days, motherhood has me ready for bed by 9pm. I still continue to travel regularly for book talks and job obligations. In fact, with our upcoming energy poll release focused on voting behavior, it will continue to be a whirlwind up to the election. So right now I’m working hard at balancing career, parenting, and contributing to the online science community.

We hear a lot about whether women can–or should try to–”have it all.” I suspect the answer is quite nuanced. We can do different things very well at different times in our lives as we change. With every passing year, I’m learning more about myself and figuring out what works for me.

Be assured Culture of Science will continue. This blog has been through five incarnations at various networks over six years. You might even say I’m a veteran in the community at this point. So yes, I will keep posting when I have meaningful ideas to contribute. And always know I’m glad to have you along on the journey.

No Slate, Romney Did Not “School” The President On Science Policy

6 Sep

As a founding member of ScienceDebate, I must politely disagree with Laura Helmuth’s well-circulated Slate piece entitled, “Romney Out-Debates Obama: How the GOP candidate schooled the president on science policy.” That’s a strong declaration, and from a scientific standpoint – an unfair assessment.

It’s true that many of Romney’s answers to the 14 science questions were longer in length than Obama’s. But both sets of responses were too highly variable to claim that anyone “schooled” anyone. Highlighting question 2 specifically, it’s clear that the GOP candidate has a lot to learn about a very critical global challenge:

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Barack Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last. Mitt Romney:I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response. President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.

Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.

For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries. And I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power. These steps will strengthen American industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce the economically-attractive technologies that developing nations must have access to if they are to achieve the reductions in their own emissions that will be necessary to address what is a global issue.

Read all of their positions here

Obama And Romney Answer Top American Science Questions

4 Sep

In 2007, friends and I launched ScienceDebate - a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative to get presidential candidates to address science and technology issues along the campaign trail. This year we presented both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney with fourteen questions focusing on key science policy issues like energy, climate change, food security, and more. Today we have their answers!

Here’s an excerpt, but make sure to read all of their positions here:

6. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

Barack Obama:

Since taking office, I have supported an all-of-the-above energy approach that will allow us to take control of our energy future, one where we safely and responsibly develop America’s many energy resources – including natural gas, wind, solar, oil, clean coal, and biofuels – while investing in clean energy and increasing fuel efficiency standards to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

I know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the global economy in the 21st century. That’s why I have made the largest investment in clean energy and energy efficiency in American history and proposed an ambitious Clean Energy Standard to generate 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources like wind, solar, clean coal, and natural gas by 2035. Since taking office, electricity production from wind and solar sources has already more than doubled in the United States. We are boosting our use of cleaner fuels, including increasing the level of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline and implementing a new Renewable Fuel Standard that will save nearly 14 billion gallons of petroleum-based gasoline in 2022. America has regained its position as the world’s leading producer of natural gas. My administration is promoting the safe, responsible development of America’s near 100-year supply of natural gas that will help support more than 600,000 jobs. Because of these actions, we are positioning ourselves to have cleaner and cheaper sources of fuel that make us more energy secure and position the U.S. as a world leader in the clean energy economy.

Mitt Romney:

A crucial component of my plan for a stronger middle class is to dramatically increase domestic energy production and partner closely with Canada and Mexico to achieve North American energy independence by 2020. While President Obama has described his own energy policy as a “hodgepodge,” sent billions of taxpayer dollars to green energy projects run by political cronies, rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline as not in “the national interest,” and sought repeatedly to stall development of America’s domestic resources, my path forward would establish America as an energy superpower in the 21st century.

The goal of energy independence has long proved elusive, but analysts across the spectrum — energy experts, investment firms, even academics at Harvard University — now recognize that surging U.S. energy production, combined with the resources of America’s neighbors, can meet all of the continent’s energy needs within a decade. The key is to embrace these resources and open access to them.

A successful national energy strategy will have a fundamental influence on the well-being of the nation. An expansion in the affordable, reliable supply of domestically produced energy can bolster the competitiveness of virtually every industry within the country, creating millions of new jobs from coast to coast. With fewer energy imports and more exports of manufactured goods, America’s trade deficit will decline and the dollar will strengthen.

The benefits even extend beyond immediate economic growth. The lease payments, royalties, and taxes paid to the American people in return for the development of the nation’s resources can yield literally trillions of dollars in new government revenue. Lower energy prices can ease the burdens on household budgets. And all Americans can rest assured that the nation’s security is no longer beholden to unstable but oil-rich regions half way around the world.

I have put forward a six-part plan for achieving these goals. First, I will empower states to control onshore energy development, including on federal lands within their borders. Second, I will open offshore areas to development. Third, I will pursue a North American Energy Partnership so that America can benefit from the resources of its neighbors. Fourth, I will ensure accurate assessment of the nation’s energy resources by updating decades-old surveys that do not reflect modern technological capabilities. Fifth, I will restore transparency and fairness to permitting and regulation. And sixth, I will facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.

Throughout this agenda, I remain committed to implementing and enforcing strong environmental protections that ensure all energy development activity is conducted in a safe and responsible manner. But whereas President Obama has used environmental regulation as an excuse to block the development of resources and the construction of infrastructure, I will pursue a course that designs regulation not to stifle energy production but instead to facilitate responsible use of all energy sources — from oil and coal and natural gas, to nuclear and hydropower and biofuels, to wind and solar. Energy development, economic growth, and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand if the government focuses on transparency and fairness instead of seeking to pick winners and repay political favors.

A full white paper describing my plan for energy independence is available at


“Ready” But Wholly Unprepared To Drill Alaska’s Arctic

24 Aug

As offshore oil drilling edges ever closer to becoming a reality in the Arctic Ocean, the good folks at the Center for American Progress examine the region’s lack of readiness in the event of a spill: