The FINANCIAL — Gallup’s annual Environment survey yields two broad conclusions about Americans’ views on the U.S. energy situation. First, Americans’ concern about energy, based on multiple measures, is at or near its lowest level in two decades or more. Second, Americans continue to voice preferences for environmental protection, energy conservation and developing alternative energy over producing more traditional energy supplies.
Concern About Energy at or Near Record Lows
Twenty-five percent of Americans say they worry “a great deal” about the availability and affordability of energy — a new low in Gallup’s 18-year trend, though not substantially lower than the readings in 2003 and 2015 through 2017.
Public concern about energy is lower than concern about any of 14 other issues or social problems, except unemployment, that Gallup asked about in its 2018 Environment poll.
Similarly, 25% of Americans also describe the energy situation in the U.S. as “very serious.” This is similar to the readings since 2015 but on the lower end of what Gallup has measured in polls dating to the late 1970s. The low point was 22% in March 2002, when Americans were more focused on terrorism than other issues. Concern has been much higher at times in the past when there were energy shortages or high gas prices, including in the late 1970s, early 2001 and 2008.
Energy concerns vary by partisanship, age, education and whether a person self-identifies as an environmentalist. The percentages of Democrats, including Democratic-leaning independents, who worry a great deal about energy and describe the U.S. energy situation as very serious is about 10 points higher than it is among Republicans and Republican leaners.
There is a slightly larger gap between self-described environmentalists and non-environmentalists, with environmentalists showing greater concern. Younger Americans and those who did not attend college worry more than older Americans and those who attended college.
No more than 32% in any of these subgroups is highly concerned about the energy situation.
Limited Support for Increasing Production of Traditional Energy
Diminished concern about the U.S. energy situation has likely led fewer Americans to prioritize energy production — namely, from oil, gas and coal — over environmental protection. Currently, 34% say the U.S. should give a higher priority to increasing energy supplies than to protecting the environment, while 59% want the environment to be prioritized.
The 34% who prioritize energy matches the 2007, 2016 and 2017 measurements as the lowest in Gallup’s trend, while the 59% who favor environmental protection ties 2016 and 2017 as the highest choosing that option. Americans were more likely to prioritize energy production when gas prices were higher in 2008-2011, though that trend was briefly disrupted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in spring 2010.
Consistent with their parties’ respective platforms on the matter, Democrats prioritize environmental protection over development of energy supplies by 79% to 15%, while Republicans take the opposite view, favoring development of energy by 62% to 31%.
There are sizable age differences, with Americans younger than age 50 showing a decided preference for environmental protection (69% to 27%), while Americans aged 50 and older are divided as to whether protecting the environment (47%) or producing energy supplies (43%) should get a higher priority.
Energy Conservation Favored Over Increased Production
Americans do not see increased production of oil, gas and coal supplies as the best way to address the nation’s energy problems. Rather, given a choice, they prefer conservation by energy consumers, as they historically have. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Americans favor an emphasis on conservation of existing energy supplies over an emphasis on producing more oil, gas and coal as energy sources. The gap narrowed after the Great Recession but has expanded since gas prices declined in late 2014 and early 2015.
Democrats, environmentalists and younger adults widely prefer conservation — between 74% and 77% for each of these groups express this view. Americans aged 50 and older are about as likely to want to emphasize production (45%) as to emphasize conservation (50%). Republicans also are evenly divided, with 47% favoring increased production and 46% conservation.
Public Favors Development of Alternative Energy
Asked to choose between an emphasis on developing alternative energy sources and increased production of fossil fuels, American solidly favor the former approach. Specifically, 73% of adults prefer an approach that focuses on developing alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power, while 21% favor one that targets production of more oil, gas and coal supplies. The strong tilt toward the alternative energy solution has always existed since Gallup first asked the question in 2011, but it has been larger the past three years.
Most subgroups widely favor emphasizing alternative energy, except Republicans. While Republicans still prefer a focus on alternative energy to traditional energy sources, the gap is only 10 points, 51% to 41%, respectively. In contrast, Democrats favor alternative energy by 88% to 9%.
Energy has been a key issue at times in the U.S., particularly when it has been scarce or particularly costly. But now, with relatively low gas prices and little evidence of energy shortages in the U.S., Americans’ concern has declined and is currently at or near record lows.
As such, Americans have once again placed a higher priority on environmental protection than on increasing energy supplies. And, consistent with their historical preferences, they would rather focus on conservation and development of alternative energy than on producing more traditional forms of fuel.
Consumers, markets and private companies largely determine what happens with U.S. energy production and usage. However, government policy has a role in encouraging certain types of actions through tax incentives, and discouraging others through taxes and regulations. Those carrots and sticks will often change, depending on the prevailing power structure in Washington. In most years, including this one, Americans’ preferences seem to have been more aligned with the Democratic Party’s greater emphasis on environmental protection, energy conservation and renewable energy than with the Republican Party’s greater emphasis on producing more traditional energy.