America’s Energy IQ

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.

You can take the quiz yourself here. You can see the answer key here. And you can read the transcript of a conference call here, in which the API discusses the results of the call.

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.

10 thoughts on “America’s Energy IQ”

  1. For that matter, politicians have a poor understanding as well, which is why we find ourselves burdened with irresponsible energy policies.

    You hit the nail square on the head with that one Robert.

    With the rare exception of few politicians like Roscoe Bartlett most don’t really understand energy policy. Most made their way to where they are by “gripping’ and grinning,” doling out favors in return for contributions, and far too many are lawyers. Most politicians have little understanding of technology and science — especially the laws of thermodynamics.

    I saw a quote a few days ago that sums it up quite well: “Corn ethanol smells a lot like pork.” Politicians who really understood thermodynamics would have long ago pulled their support for corn ethanol, and put those resources towards something for which we might actually get a payback.

  2. Well, this is a poorly designed quiz. In a number of cases the actual answer is very close to the bin boundaries they give. Take questions #3 and #5 as examples.

    I certainly don’t know the answer the #7, nor is it relevant to energy policy.

    Overall it seems to be more a ‘gotcha!’ exercise.

  3. Now, if I can only have this same conversation with 300 million other people, we might start to get somewhere on our energy policy.
    Well, that’s why you are writing this fine blog here, right?

    Keep up the good work!

    PS I agree with Robert McLeod: it seems designed to make a point, rather than assess what people know.

  4. A seriously crap quiz. I doubt most US Senators would get less than half right.

    Understanding the question in itself wasn’t easy.

    I read the oil drum quite regularly and I am shamed to say that I only got seven right.

  5. This quiz was garbage from the first question. 10 biggest by what measure? Revenues? XOM at $350b+ certainly exceeds most, if not all, NOCs. #6 also makes no sense. At 10 cents/gal total profits for all gasoline would be $14b. XOM’s profits alone were $40b. Of course they make more than gasoline, but they also control only a small slice of the market. My guess is they count only the small profit from distributing and retailing and ignore the huge profits from pumping and refining the crude oil to make the gasoline. Pure crap.

    The “according to projections” questions are equally poor. Whose projections? I guarantee I can find projections that show more than 5% of the fleet will be E85 capable by 2030.

    I could go on, but geez. I got 13 right with lots of mental math and guesswork based on the points I knew they wanted to make. This poll proves nothing except the fact that API gamesmanship is right up there with the RFA’s.

  6. “XOM at $350b+ certainly exceeds most, if not all, NOCs.”

    You have got to be kidding. The NOCs are selling massive quantities of oil at $60/bbl.

    “At 10 cents/gal total profits for all gasoline would be $14b.”

    First, I thought it was 10 cents on the dollar. But second, XOM also sells oil. So profits may very well be 10 cents/gal (although I suspect they are ten cents on the dollar, or 30 cents per gallon).

    “I guarantee I can find projections that show more than 5% of the fleet will be E85 capable by 2030.”

    Agree with you there. I think Khosla projects that we will run the entire vehicle fleet on biofuels by 2030.

  7. The writers of the quiz understand that even among active, aware citizens, energy knowledge tends more towards the macro and rarely the micro. I know oil is finite, and I suspect we’ll run out of mid-century or thereabouts, but hell, I can’t say if it’ll be 40, 50, or 60 years from now. This stupid quiz is written by hacks whose agenda is perfectly naked. We might have 9% in renewables by 2030, or 12%, or more. Or less! I’m sure glad they know where the dart hits. People won’t learn about energy issues partly because “metrics” like these are designed for political, not educational, purposes, and nobody likes being manipulated by paid professionals whose job is to confuse. That goes for both sides of the debate.

  8. P.S. Robert, love the blog — very informative, and quite reasonable!

    Sorry, that quiz got my hackles up, that’s all…

  9. Students who score badly always claim the questions were unfair. Seemed like a perfectly fair quiz to me. But unlike college exams, the options were not designed to help you pass. If you didn’t know the answer, guessing wouldn’t help. I scored 7, btw, but I got close on quite a few.

    Sure the quiz makes a point. The point being most people don’t know as much as they think about energy issues.

  10. At an angle to this … I almost feel like calling a “tipping point.”

    In 1978 we had a “gas crisis” that was felt in more ways than just price, but in response the fleet changed. Aggregate MPG leapt ahead of regulation (CAFE).

    Recently we’ve had the gas price run-up, without the official “crisis” (or odd/even days, or long lines).

    It might be an open question if this would produce a change … until the results start to roll in.

    Energy-watchers surely noticed when the Prius made the top-ten list in sales for a recent month.

    And locally, in Orange County, California, I’ve noticed a huge shift in car advertising. Ads are all about MPG now. Did you know the new Mini gets 40 MPG? It was on rock-radio. (Actually the rock station has a Honda commercial that says “gas prices will be $5 this summer” which sounds like an illegal claim.)

    Anyway, this is the kind of response I expected two years ago. It came late, but not never.

    So, will we tip? Is there a serious way to look for or measure the tip? Or will “Peak Oilers” of optimist or pessimist camp just stick with their same old projections?

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