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Real Change On Energy

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

In his first Oval Office speech, President Obama tried to channel frustration over the Gulf oil spill into momentum for changing U.S. energy policy, calling for new action to promote clean energy and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The president compared changing the nation's energy use to the buildup for World War II, or the drive to put a man on the moon.

In a recent blog posting, I observed that in those cases the public may however have had a much firmer grasp of both the challenge and the choices facing the nation. The public has a "Learning Curve™" to climb on complicated issues, as people work through what they think and what they're willing to do. Americans can do this on energy as they have before on many other thorny issues, but before we do, there are a couple of challenges to get past.

Rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller)

One is that significant numbers of Americans lack key information about how we use energy. Four in 10, we've found on our surveys, can't name a fossil fuel, and roughly half can't name a renewable energy source. Although most people are aware that it'll take a while for alternative energy to really take hold, most also overestimate how much renewable energy we use now.

In fact, the United States gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels – and the government's own projections say we'll still get getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels in 2030, unless we take steps to change.

The second challenge is helping the public grasp the choices we face. The Deepwater spill (USCG photo, above: rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La.) has made the risks and tradeoffs involved in offshore drilling abundantly clear. But the tradeoffs involved in moving away from oil are more complicated.

Do we want to continue putting something liquid in our tanks, like biofuels or natural gas? Do we want to move to electric cars? Are we willing to pay more to do either? Any of these alternatives require big changes – after all, there are 250 million motor vehicles in the U.S., and almost all of them run on oil.

These are choices that divide and even flummox the experts. But making choices doesn't have to be left to the experts – and on this issue, more than most, it's the public that has to choose. To learn more about the choices we face, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guide To The Energy Crisis and join the discussion on Facebook and on @TheEnergyBook, our energy feed on Twitter.


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