Americans Expecting a Power Shift in Energy Supply in Next Ten Years

By Dina Smeltz and Rachel Bronson

A global energy revolution is underway, driven in part by new technologies to unlock untapped resources and drive energy efficiency. A recent Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans place a high priority on a secure energy supply and support the development of renewable energy.  While renewables have many virtues, the public does not necessarily understand the urgency of developing alternative energy as a means to limit climate change. Nevertheless, Americans clearly lean toward cleaner methods of powering the country and expect renewable sources will overtake fossil fuels as the primary US energy sources in the next ten years.

Energy a top priority for Americans

Americans have long considered securing adequate supplies of energy a top goal for US foreign policy.  Going back decades to the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974, majorities have rated securing energy supplies a very important goal (66% in 2014 and 75% in 1974).  In the 2014 survey, it ranks second only to protecting the jobs of American workers. In addition, since 2010, three in four say that reducing US dependence on foreign oil is a very important goal (74% today).

The public has been slower to recognize the attendant issue of climate change, although more now than in the past four years view limiting climate change is a very important goal (41% compared to 33% in 2012, 35% in 2010, 42% in 2008).  If the views of American academic, government and business leaders make an impact on public opinion, concern about climate change among the public could rise. New results from a 2014 Chicago Council Leaders Survey show that leaders, like the public, also emphasize securing energy supplies as a top priority. [1] But leaders also consider climate change a top threat and say that limiting climate change should be one of the highest goals for US foreign policy.


Emphasis on developing renewables, especially if business or government picks up the bill Continue reading

In Advance of the Three Amigos Summit

By Dina Smeltz

Coinciding with NAFTA’s 20th anniversary year, President Obama along with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are slated to discuss trade, investment and security issues next week at the North American Summit in Toluca, Mexico.

To help shed light on public perceptions of the US-Mexico relationship in advance of North American Summit in Toluca, Mexico next week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs partnered with Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinión Pública (CESOP), Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute to carry out just-released opinion surveys in Mexico and the United States (see methodology at end of posting). Findings show that while government officials have been hoping to diversify bilateral policies beyond drug trafficking, organized crime and border security, the Mexican and American publics are not quite ready to let go of the traditional security issues.

Both Countries Viewed as Mutually Important: Americans and Mexicans recognize the importance of their neighbor to their country’s role in the world. Eight in ten Mexicans believe the United States is important for Mexico (79%).  Seven in ten Americans said the same thing about Mexico in April 2013 (69%).Both sides also agree that current bilateral relations are positive:  six in ten Mexicans (59%) and Americans (60%) say that current relations between the two countries are good.

There is a hint of resentment behind Mexican opinion, however, with a plurality (42%) saying that Mexico cooperates with the US “more than it should.” Twenty-three percent say it cooperates less than it should, and 22 percent say cooperation is about right. Continue reading

Borderline Identity Issues in North America, But Strong Support for Trade

Note:  EKOS gave permission to use their graphs in this posting.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in Mexico City last week,  where he and Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera signed an economic agreement  that aims to increase tourism, foreign investment and exports, and to facilitate university partnerships.  The agreement was development with assistance from The Brookings Institute; according to a Brookings press release, business and civic delegates from metropolitan areas across Mexico, the United States and Canada also planned to discuss the significant role of metropolitan areas in an integrated North American economy.

A recent cross-national poll shows varying degrees of willingness to deepen North American ties.  Mexicans would welcome deeper integration with the rest of North America on a range of policies (less so on energy policy). Americans are generally open to aligning environment and security policies (with pluralities saying they should integrate policies). Canadians are also positive toward environment and security cooperation; but they are less concerned now about border security than in the past.  Canadians appear more sensitive than Mexicans and Americans toward the tradeoffs of sovereignty and integration.

These are some of the findings of three separate surveys conducted in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The study was coordinated by EKOS Research Associates on behalf of Robert Pastor and the Centre for North American Studies (CNAS) at American University.  Miguel Basáñez was also a key contributor to this research, and the Centro de Estudios de Opinión Pública fielded the face-to-face interviews in Mexico. The Canadian survey was based on EKOS’ probability-based, hybrid online/telephone research panel, Probit. The US survey was conducted using GfK’s Knowledge Networks’  KnowledgePanel.

The survey objectives included gauging attitudes toward trilateral relations and testing the appeal of a “North American idea.”  CNAS recently held a conference examining the rise and decline of NAFTA, and pointed, in part, to a lack of government leadership in creating a sense of a North American market and community. Continue reading

Oilè! Mexican Public Opposed to Pemex Privatization

Mexican President Peña Nieto recently proposed changes to the country’s constitution to allow private investment in Mexico’s oil industry.  This is a maverick move in a country whose “national DNA has been programmed to see energy as a national treasure” [as described by a McClatchy report]. President Cardenas nationalized the oil industry in 1938 and ejected foreign investment (including Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell) in that sector. Previous efforts to open up the sector prompted public protests and eventually fizzled. Besides its symbolic importance of national independence, the state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) employs over 100,000 Mexicans (with strong union representation), and oil proceeds comprise a third of all revenues raised by the central government.

Because of the sensitivities over the ownership of oil, the government plans to offer foreign investors a share in the profits of the oil and gas they produce, rather than allowing them to invest in the reserves themselves. Loren Steffy, writing for, comments that Peña Nieto’s plan is likely to encourage some form of joint venture with foreign companies to get around the legal challenges. But Steffy points out that “getting around public opposition may prove far more difficult.” Two polls conducted  in Mexico corroborate this point.

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Obama and the New Climate Paradigm

By Michael Shellenberger, President,  and Ted Nordhaus, Chairman of the  Breakthrough Institute

President Obama’s big climate speech this week was historic, but not for the reasons many observers have suggested. To his credit, Obama is following through on his promise to pursue climate policy in “chunks” in the fall of 2010, after cap and trade had died the summer before. But these chunks are not the old climate agenda in new clothing.

Where efforts to address climate change have for the last 20 years focused on reducing national emissions through sweeping policies, like cap and trade or carbon taxes, climate policy today has shifted decisively toward smaller bore, pragmatic policies that don’t promise to eliminate the climate crisis in one fell swoop but do help us move our economy toward greater “decarbonization,” sector by sector and technology by technology. Slowly but surely, a new climate pragmatism is taking shape.

Even as the global Kyoto Protocol collapsed and cap and trade legislation foundered in Congress, U.S. emissions have declined faster than any nation’s in the world. Cheap and clean natural gas, thanks to fracking technologies developed since the 1970’s with significant support from taxpayers, has rapidly displaced coal. New fuel economy standards have helped drive down automobile emissions. Federal Clean Air Act regulations on conventional air pollutants have made it more expensive to burn coal.

The administrative actions that the President announced in his State of the Union address last February and confirmed this week should further accelerate these trends. Regulation of carbon emissions from power plants will accelerate the shift from coal to gas and new fuel economy standards on heavy trucks will help further decarbonize the transportation fleet.

A similar transition is underway internationally, with bilateral and multilateral agreements among major emitters displacing efforts to make a grand bargain to cap global emissions at the United Nations, a shift proposed by a number of critics of the 20-year effort to cap emissions, including the two of us, over the last decade, that has only to begun to bear fruit since the collapse of international climate negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009.

One thing, however, does remain unchanged. Climate politics retains its penchant for hype and hyperbole. The White House promoted Obama’s speech in advance with beauty shots of the Earth, complete with a New Age soundtrack. In his speech, the President served up the usual red meat for climate partisans, restating the well-established fact that climate change has been incontrovertibly linked to human greenhouse gas emissions while offering dubious assertions about the link between warming and present day natural disasters.

The reaction from climate partisans was swift and predictable. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times it was the speech that environmentalists had waited for twenty years to hear, while former Vice President Al Gore proclaimed it the most important speech about climate change that a President had ever given. Conservatives offered matched denunciations, claiming that the modest actions announced by the President would deeply damage the economy and that the President had caved to the radical green fringe.

The truth is much more prosaic. There is still much work to do. Most of the progress we have made in recent years has been through incremental improvement to our existing fossil energy infrastructure — burning gas instead of coal and improving the efficiency of automobiles — not replacing fossil energy with alternative technologies, which will be necessary in order to achieve significantly deeper reductions in carbon emissions.

But the pathway to developing cheap, scalable zero carbon energy technologies will be much the same as the path we have taken to developing cleaner fossil energy technology — sustained public support for technology innovation and targeted policies to deploy those technologies as they begin to become competitive.

The President, to his credit, has been steadfast in his support for research and deployment of clean energy technology, although the heavy focus on renewables has left other options, particularly nuclear, wanting. But beyond the specifics, the shift in strategy and emphasis is salutary.

While the rhetoric and polarization among climate partisans appear resistant to both intervention and changing circumstances, something important is happening below the surface. However, self proclaimed climate hawks on the left and their doppelgangers on the right are likely to be the last to know.

Climate Control

President Obama’s Georgetown Speech and Public Opinion 

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.”
– President Obama on climate change deniers

Sandwiched between the George Zimmerman trial and Supreme Court announcements, President Obama announced his new energy strategy to combat climate change yesterday at Georgetown University. The speech outlined specific policy changes to address the United States global climate pledge to cut the nation’s carbon output to 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. Unlike other issues such as immigration reform or the healthcare bill, these policy changes can be executed through executive orders, therefore sidestepping congressional approval. These initiatives include limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, increasing appliance efficiency standards, focusing on renewable energy development on public lands, and strengthening coastal communities to help cope with severe weather and flooding.

While this action may defuse some of the domestic and international pressure for American action on climate issues, it may also aggravate worries of other Americans who are focused on a different kind of green. Several polls suggest that the increased costs related to stricter emission regulations and investment in renewable energy could elicit concern over perceived trade-offs between economic growth and the environment.

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Splitting Atoms

American Attitudes toward Nuclear Power/ Part III of American Attitudes toward Energy

I recently watched an interview on the Colbert Report where Stephen spoke with Michael Shellenberger, a co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute. about a book which he recently co-authored (eponymously named Break Through). Shellenberger and his colleagues are focused on making clean energy affordable through technology innovation to deal with both global warming and energy poverty (rather than making dirty energy more expensive).  They argue that rather than abandoning our dated technology (à la Dr. Frankenstein),  we should  “love our monsters,” and modernize them for current conditions. Colbert extended the Frankenstein metaphor to Three Mile Island and nuclear power, and Shellenberger agreed that nuclear energy could be a positive in creating clean, affordable energy. Shellenberger also appears in a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, featuring environmentalists, scientists, and energy experts who have shifted from being ardently anti-nuclear to strongly pro–nuclear energy.

Having grown up ten miles from Three Mile Island, I have complicated views about nuclear energy.  (My family evacuated to NYC, where we watched the menacing TMI Tower II on the news and wondered exactly what it was spewing). Apparently, American public opinion is mixed on the issue as well, because results vary greatly according to survey questions.

When asked to rate the impact of a series of energy sources on the environment in a Harris Interactive poll from September 2012, Americans deem nuclear energy the most harmful energy source in terms of environmental impact (48%), followed by clean coal (34%), natural gas (23%), biomass (12%, with 61% not at all sure), hydropower (8%), wind (5%) and solar (4%).

Yet when asked separately about nuclear energy as an alternative source of electricity to fossil fuels, Americans seem to favor the continuing operation of existing nuclear power plants, if question wording includes the benefits of reducing energy dependence and providing electricity.  Longer-term trends show that this support dropped in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but seemed to rebound in recent surveys.  At any rate, Americans are decisively less enthusiastic about building new nuclear plants. Continue reading

What the Frack? Americans Don’t Seem To Know Much about Hydraulic Fracturing

By Dina Smeltz

Public Favors Offshore Drilling (If  Negatives Are Not Emphasized)  

Today’s post is Part II in our series on American attitudes toward various energy options.

Polls have generally shown majority support for offshore drilling, despite a dip in support following the Gulf oil spill in 2010. By March 2012, a Pew survey found that 65 percent said they favor “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in US waters” to address America’s energy supply, similar to the levels reported in their 2008 and 2009 polls (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Pew Poll

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It’s Not Easy Being Green

President Obama will be in Chicago’s western suburbs to promote his energy policies on Friday at Argonne National Laboratory.  The Administration’s energy strategy has evolved over time, viewing the production of natural gas and nuclear energy as a transitional stage in shifting away from dependence on fossil fuels to reliance on cleaner energy sources.  As new supplies of oil and natural gas have been developed, particularly through fracking, the gains have also had positive knock-on effects for job growth and economic improvement.  Analysts say that within a decade, the US could not only become energy independent, but also a net energy exporter. While this is good news for the goals of energy independence and economic growth, opponents of fracking are trying to raise concern about the environmental risks associated with the process.

As far as American public opinion is concerned, reducing energy dependence is a top priority. While a majority of Americans across the political spectrum favor measures that emphasize the development of alternative energy and energy conservation, they are not willing to personally pay increased taxes to encourage the use of alternative energy.  Moreover, there has a been shift in opinion toward emphasizing energy production over environmental protection. As often happens, question wording plays a role in how people react to energy options.  And this highlights the potential for various messages from different interest groups to affect opinion.

[Polling trends other than Chicago Council surveys can be found at]

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