Skip to main content

2013: Energy issues on front burner

By Sheril Kirshenbaum, Special to CNN
December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
From left, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon promote what Sheril Kirshenbaum says will be a controversial film.
From left, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon promote what Sheril Kirshenbaum says will be a controversial film.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Public attitudes shifted on key energy issues in 2012
  • Sheril Kirshenbaum says controversy has grown over natural gas fracking boom
  • She says climate change, renewable energy are likely to be on agenda for 2013
  • Kirshenbaum: A turbulent year has increased public interest in energy issues

Editor's note: Sheril Kirshenbaum is an author and director of The University of Texas at Austin's Energy Poll.

(CNN) -- After a year of tumultuous weather and global change, it should not be surprising that 2012 proved to be a transformative period for public opinion on energy.

Changing attitudes on the most hotly debated topics matter a great deal because they set the course for future policy decisions. Taking a closer look at trends over the past 12 months hints at what to expect in several key areas of the U.S. energy landscape in 2013.

Sheril Kirshenbaum
Sheril Kirshenbaum

Natural gas boom -- and controversy

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," has been around for more than half a century, but recently expanded rapidly because of advances in horizontal drilling deep underground.

Despite this proliferation of new wells, 59% of Americans say they are unfamiliar with the term, down from 63% in March, according to the latest findings from the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Poll.

2013 will be a year of....
CNN Opinion contributors weigh in on what to expect in 2013. What do you think the year holds in store? Let us know @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

Although the majority still does not seem to know much about fracking, a deluge of media attention to this controversial extraction technology has likely raised its profile significantly since last year.

However, increased awareness is not synonymous with public approval. Among those familiar with hydraulic fracturing, support decreased from 48% to 41% over six months. Similarly, a December poll by Bloomberg reported that 66% of Americans would like greater government oversight of the process, up from 56% in September.

A car that gets 240 miles per gallon
Solar Power in Germany
Energy special Denmark
Pickens' 5-year plan for energy prices

When Matt Damon's new film "Promised Land" debuts in January, expect public recognition and heated debate over hydraulic fracturing to rise further.

Climate change gets real

When Gov. Mitt Romney quipped, "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans" at the 2012 Republican National Convention, his audience burst into laughter. During the debates that followed, neither party's nominee mentioned climate change once as a policy priority.

Weeks later, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeastern United States, flooding many parts of New York City, New Jersey and other regions along the Atlantic Coast. Both candidates immediately canceled campaign events in the wake of the storm and Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Obama, citing his commitment to tackling climate change. After a summer of record-breaking drought followed by this single powerful hurricane in a major metropolitan area, attitudes shifted.

In March, 65% of Americans surveyed said they thought that climate change was occurring. By September, after the summer drought, that number reached 73%, with the greatest gains among Republicans and independent voters. Earlier this month, The Associated Press-GfK poll followed up, reporting that after Sandy, 78% of Americans now say global temperatures are rising.

Because weather can influence opinions on climate change, it's possible that a wet and stormy winter -- ironically, also exacerbated by climate change -- could push attitudes in the other direction. Regardless, in 2013 expect to hear less argument about whether the Earth is warming and a more serious policy discussion by elected officials across levels of government about how we might mitigate the effects of rising seas, changing ocean acidity, agricultural uncertainty and extreme weather events.

Renewables gain ground

Renewable energy technologies have been available for decades, but 2012 may have been the tipping point for their wider adoption. There has been a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who say they are likely to buy hybrid or electric vehicles or use "smart" electric meters within the next five years. Most notably, between September 2011 and September 2012, the percentage of Americans who say they are likely to install solar panels at home increased from 21% to 28%.

These trends may reflect changing attitudes on climate, media attention to energy during the election cycle, rising gas prices or cheaper, widely advertised new alternatives. Most likely, it's a combination of all these.

What's clear is that we are now on the cusp of a renewables revolution with greater options and cost-saving technologies than ever. They are finally becoming more affordable, reliable and practical, with solar power at the helm. Still, it's important to note that as we ring in 2013, China, not the United States, has taken the lead on renewables.

The big picture

Polls tell the story of how attitudes are shifting, but short of having a crystal ball, there is no way to unequivocally predict what major world events will influence our nation's energy future. For example, another nuclear disaster or offshore oil spill could play an enormous role in shaping the next generation of energy priorities.

What can we count on in 2013?

In the past year, the percentage of Americans saying they consider themselves knowledgeable on how energy is produced, delivered and used has increased from 24% to 33%. More are likely to seek added information about reducing their own energy use and a higher percentage rate energy issues as important to them.

Amid economic uncertainty, volatile prices and global unrest, Americans are paying closer attention to the energy decisions that affect us all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheril Kirshenbaum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT