I already knew that the general population has a poor understanding of energy issues. For that matter, politicians have a poor understanding as well, which is why we find ourselves burdened with irresponsible energy policies.
The API has validated my impressions with a survey that they had commissioned by HarrisInteractive. To such questions as “Who supplies the U.S. with the most imported oil?”, respondents floundered. They grossly overestimated the size of publicly traded oil companies like ExxonMobil in relation to national oil companies like Saudi Aramco. And they grossly overestimated the potential for biofuels to displace fossil fuel usage. In fairness, some of the questions were quite difficult, such as “How many years does Oil and Gas Journal think our oil will last?” After all, how many people outside the oil industry read OGJ?
While some of the questions were clearly self-serving (and I don’t like lumping spending on CTL, GTL, and shale oil with spending on biomass, wind, and solar in one category called “emerging energy technologies”, or “alternative energy”), they do provide an indication of the energy IQ of the general public. There were 20 questions in the quiz. On 9 of the questions, the incorrect answer was given by at least 89% of the respondents. On 16 questions, the incorrect answer was given by at least 75% of the respondents. On none of the questions was the correct answer given by more than 46% of the respondents. And on many of the questions, people favored the answer that was farthest from the correct answer.
One question was missing, though, in my opinion: “How much interest do you have on energy issues?” I have been in Oklahoma for the past week, talking with relatives and old friends about energy issues at every opportunity. Despite the fact that energy ranks up there with food and water in importance in our daily lives (and in fact is intertwined with both food and water), people just don’t care. They are content to let special interests and uninformed politicians (who are easily influenced by special interests) draw up energy policy. They want their gas prices to go down, and they don’t want to hear about oil companies making multi-billion dollar profits while they pay $3.00 a gallon for gasoline. My Mom asked me yesterday, “Just how many billions did Exxon make last year?”
To the extent that I can get people engaged, they think that renewables will be a drop-in solution as fossil fuels deplete. In fact, my brother-in-law actually said to me “Brazil transitioned to alternative energy, and by God so can we.” Of course I explained to him that Brazil still derives 90% of their transportation fuel from fossil fuels, that they use 1/7th of the per capita energy usage that we use in the U.S., and they have a much better crop for producing ethanol in sugarcane. This was all news to him, and he certainly didn’t know how to respond to that.
Now, if I can only have this same conversation with 300 million other people, we might start to get somewhere on our energy policy. As it is, the energy policy that is currently being debated is a recipe for an endless sea of hearings pondering the questions of why gasoline prices continue to go up, and why switchgrass ethanol is not materializing as has been promised. Maybe they can call Vinod up for an explanation.