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UW Researcher Finds Common Ground Among Citizens on Energy Issues

December 21, 2018
wind farm on the plains
Americans may be less divided on national energy issues -- including renewable energy such as wind power -- than media reporting would suggest, research led by UW marketing Professor Mark Peterson has found. (UW Photo)

At a time of pronounced political discord, Americans may be less divided on national energy issues than media reporting would suggest, research led by a University of Wyoming marketing professor has found.

In fact, better understanding of citizen perspectives on energy issues by policymakers could identify common ground and transform the debate and development of energy policies, Professor Mark Peterson has concluded.

“Our research suggests that there is more commonality among citizens regarding energy policy than what might be suggested by a media with a 24-hour news cycle and need for drama to drive ratings,” Peterson says. “The results point to a timely opportunity for bolstering a dialogue between policymakers at all levels and the public about the development of new energy policies that would protect the environment, address job creation and contain costs for energy.”

Peterson’s findings, gleaned from sophisticated polling of citizens at the national and state levels, have been published in the journal Energy Policy, an international peer-reviewed journal addressing the policy implications of energy supply and use from their economic, social, planning and environmental aspects. Also participating in the research was David Feldman of the SDR Consulting firm in Atlanta.

While public opinion on energy issues often is presented as part of lobbying efforts favoring or opposing policies that support certain types of energy over others, Peterson’s field research engaged citizens in a more nuanced fashion that included discussion of trade-offs of different energy policies. Among other things, survey participants considered energy policy impacts on the environment, energy costs, economic vitality, U.S. energy security, government assistance and greenhouse gas emissions.

The two surveys -- one conducted at the national level, the other composed of data from eight states where energy issues are of particularly high public interest -- found general agreement that the most important considerations in energy policies are environmental quality, greenhouse gas emissions, energy costs and job creation. And, despite significant differences on energy in the platforms of the nation’s two largest political parties, party affiliation had a relatively small impact on the importance citizens placed on those topics.

“In the national survey, Republicans placed environmental quality in future energy legislation lower in importance than Democrats -- but, importantly, it was the most important outcome of energy policy for the Republicans, just as it was for the Democrats,” Peterson says. “Republicans place more importance on energy costs and energy security than did Democrats, but the pattern of responses across the other dimensions of possible energy policies was similar across political party affiliation. This suggests the potential for policymakers to find common ground.”

The survey found more differences among the eight states where citizens were surveyed than between Republicans and Democrats.

“For example, Wyoming is most concerned with traditional energy jobs, but less so for energy costs. Nevada is much more concerned about job creation for renewable energy and also is more focused on the environment,” Peterson says. “In states with relatively high energy costs, such as Kentucky and Massachusetts, energy cost is the most important dimension for future energy policy. States such as Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina and New York give most importance to protecting the environment.”

Still, despite the differences across the states, the research suggests there is likely more agreement than previously thought.

“The key implication here is that while small differences do exist for citizens identifying with differing political perspectives, the overall pattern of which policies are important and which are least important is striking,” Peterson says. “There is a surprising degree of agreement among citizens regarding preferences among energy policies that would reduce environmental harm while lowering energy costs.”

Alex Bozmoski, the managing director of RepublicEn -- an organization that advocates addressing climate change through free enterprise instead of subsidies and regulations -- describes Peterson’s research as “fascinating and helpful.” Bozmoski specifically notes “the evidence that party affiliation has a smaller effect than we might expect; that greenhouse gas effects are more important to citizens than it sometimes feels; and that there's a lot of commonality across segments of the population, even if states have different priorities.”

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