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High-stakes gas prices

A year-long surge in gasoline prices is shifting public opinions on a wide range of energy issues, according to the university’s new Energy Poll.

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For today’s energy consumers, the pain doesn’t stop at the pump. A year-long surge in gasoline prices seems to be shifting public opinions on a wide range of energy issues. That’s a key lesson from the second round of The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, released April 10. Compared to the first round, conducted last September, consumers are eager to expand energy supplies, both of hydrocarbons and alternatives.

“What changes there are seem to be driven by two things,” says Wayne Hoyer, co-director of the poll and marketing department chair at the McCombs School of Business. “Gas prices have gone up 20 cents a gallon since the last time we took the poll, and with the presidential campaign, there’s been a lot of energy discussion in the news.”

Rising gas prices drive down expectations

Illustration: Chris Philpot

In the March survey of 2371 consumers, 81 percent say gas prices are very high, up 12 points from the September survey. The worst, they expect, is yet to come. Fully 59 percent believe prices will increase significantly over the next six months, versus 32 percent in the earlier group.

They’re less worried about other kinds of energy prices. Only 50 percent consider heating oil prices very high, while concern about electricity and natural gas prices has dropped slightly since September.

They’re carrying automobile angst into the voting booth. Respondents were asked what policies would sway their votes, for or against presidential candidates. Their answer: Almost anything that produces more energy.

But consumers’ motto is not just, “Drill, Baby, Drill.” While they support oil production, their top priorities are natural gas and renewables, such as wind and solar:

  • Natural gas wins support from 61 percent of those polled.
  • Financial incentives for renewable energy companies are favored by 59 percent, while 57 percent would set renewable quotas for utilities.
  • Higher research funding for new energy technologies is desired by 59 percent.

When it comes to oil, 50 percent would approve the XL Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texasversus only 15 percent against itwhile 46 percent would like more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But drilling has its limits. Only 38 percent want it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while 32 percent oppose it.

Nuclear power generates the least enthusiasm, with 27 percent approving loan guarantees for nuclear companies and 25 percent against them.

“People would like energy resources developed across the spectrum,” says Varun Rai, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “Not just renewables, natural gas or oil, but there’s a broad support for lowering prices and increasing supplies.”

Note to government: Get busier

People want more action from government, as well: 57 percent, compared to 24 percent who think it’s trying to do too much. The slow pace of current federal efforts earns President Barack Obama a dissatisfaction rating of 50 percent. Congress fares even worse: a negative score of 68 percent and a positive score of only 5 percent.

“Similar to last time, people are not happy with the job government is doing,” says Hoyer. “Predominantly, it’s because people think they need to do more.”

 Energy issues voters care about

Illustration: Chris Philpot

Respondents are also looking beyond government. Engineers and scientists get the highest satisfaction rating, at 34 percent, while universities, research institutes and small businesses rate in the mid-20s. Renewable energy companies score twice the satisfaction of oil and gas companies.

Despite today’s pinched pockets, consumers have a degree of optimism about the future. Over the next five years, 41 percent believe that U.S. energy policy will improve their choices for affordable and clean energy. Since September, they’re slightly less concerned about America’s consumption of foreign oil.

Not easy being green

At first glance, the environment is taking a back seat to the pocketbook. Since September, those describing themselves as environmentalists have dropped from 51 to 45 percent, while those unwilling to pay higher prices for environmental protection have jumped from 37 to 46 percent.

But consumers aren’t tossing the environment out of the car. Sixty-four percent still fret about the impact of oil and gas development, while 69 percent worry about the depletion of water resources. There’s strong support for the Environmental Protection Agency, with 47 percent opposing proposals to eliminate it and only 20 percent supporting them.

“It’s not very prudent for any candidate to assume the public is not sensitive to the environment,” says Rai. “One has to be very mindful how one is blending in environmental protection to the energy plans they’re proposing.”

Perhaps most telling are consumers’ views on global climate change. Only 22 percent say it’s not occurring, while 65 percent believe it is. Most cite human activity as the prime culprit, with deforestation and fossil fuels the biggest factors.

Consumers take a nuanced view of Texas’ newest environmental controversy: hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process of injecting high-pressure liquids into deep rock formations to break them up and release natural gas.

Two-thirds of consumers aren’t yet familiar with the process, including 35 percent who have never heard of it. Of the 32 percent who are familiar, 48 percent support it and 36 percent oppose it. But 60 percent would like more regulation or better enforcement, and 81 percent want companies to disclose the chemicals they’re usinga requirement of a new Texas law.

Such numbers offer a valuable reality check on fracking, says Hoyer. “Though it’s a big issue to engineers and scientists, most people are not that familiar with it.”

Painting a picture over time

That’s part of the value of the energy poll, Hoyer adds. It clues both academics and policymakers on where the public needs educating. The survey will run every six months. Over time, it can show how public opinion is evolving, in response to both long-term trends and short-term shocks like gas prices.

For now, Hoyer cautions against reading too much into the differences between the first two surveys. “I always hesitate to make judgments with just two data points in longitudinal studies,” he says. “They could be random fluctuations. What I’m really looking for are long-term trends.”

He’s curious to see how gas prices will shape those long-term trends. “Right now, people are slightly more interested in domestic production,” he says. “If anything, the cost of gas may be making people realize we need to focus. It could be having a long-term positive effect. This could be a stimulant to get people to push for other kinds of energy.”

The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll was developed by the McCombs School of Business’ Energy Management and Innovation Center to provide an objective, authoritative look at consumer attitudes and perspectives on key energy issues. Conducted biannually, the online poll rates leadership on energy issues, measures consumers’ energy priorities, and tracks knowledge and energy consumption behaviors.

The April 2012 University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll reflects the views of 2,371 Americans surveyed during March 5-16, 2012. The data 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.

This story originally appeared on the Texas Enterprise website.