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Commentary By Max Schulz

Americans Consume Lots of Myths With Their Energy

Energy is central to virtually every activity from sun-up to sundown, yet Americans hardly know much about it. Though we use various sources of energy to power and illuminate our day-to-day lives, we are fairly ignorant about many of the basics of our energy economy. The ultimate implications extend beyond mere ignorance; sound policy decisions require a well-informed public.

Distressingly, a study conducted by the Manhattan Institute found great areas for concern with respect to Americans' energy and environmental literacy. With help from Zogby International, we polled 1,000 average Americans on topics from the sources and uses of our energy supplies to the environmental consequences of energy production and use.

The disconnect between what people know about these topics and what they think they know is alarming, inasmuch as the public's attitudes and beliefs drive the policies set by our elected representatives.

Among the most pervasive myths is the idea that when we talk about energy, we mean oil. Media coverage of energy typically focuses on how crude-oil prices translate into prices at the pump. Political rhetoric mirrors this tendency to treat oil as the centerpiece of our energy economy. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that 68 percent of Americans believe that most of America's energy comes from oil, versus other energy sources.

In reality, however, our economy is much less oil-centered than people believe. Sixty percent of U.S. primary energy consumption comes from other sources that largely generate electricity and heat, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable energies.

While many of our policy debates focus on oil, it is electricity (and the fuels that generate it) that is growing in importance in our energy economy. We use 82 percent more electricity than we did in 1980, a jump that accounts for more than 85 percent of the growth in U.S. energy demand in that time.

As a result, today about 60 percent of America's gross domestic product comes from industries and services that run on electricity. In 1950 the figure was just 20 percent. While the media concentrates on oil, the real story is the increasing electrification of the American economy.

None of which is to say that oil is unimportant. As the fuel undergirding the transportation sector, oil is obviously a significant part of our energy economy, and will be for years to come.

When it comes to where we get that oil, however, Americans again show that their knowledge of some basic facts about energy is faulty. When asked to identify which country provides the greatest share of foreign oil to the United States, a firm majority (55 percent) picked Saudi Arabia.

That answer suggests a general belief that we are overly dependent on the Middle East for our oil. Moreover, that view would seem to be confirmed by nightly newscasts, or by politicians who inveigh against the dangers of importing so much from unstable parts of the world.

So it should come as a surprise to most Americans to learn that the chief foreign supplier of oil to the United States is not Saudi Arabia, but our peaceful northern ally, Canada. (Only 8 percent of respondents correctly identified Canada as our top supplier.) After Canada comes another ally, Mexico. Only then does Saudi Arabia rank.

All told, less than 20 percent of U.S. petroleum imports come from the Persian Gulf, and just 11 percent of the total amount Americans consume.

Canada and Mexico, on the other hand, provide 28 percent of our imports and almost 19 percent of our total oil consumption. If the United States can be said to be beholden to any region for its oil supplies, it would not be the Middle East but the Western Hemisphere. Fully two-thirds of the crude oil and petroleum products that the United States uses come from the Americas.

Americans, it seems, are similarly misinformed on a host of other issues, believing that the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island was deadly (it wasn't); that our cities are getting dirtier (air pollution has actually been slashed since 1970); that the Kyoto Protocol would require all nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions (it exempted China and India); that wind and solar power could substitute easily for coal and nuclear power (they could not); and that we can easily meet our future energy requirements solely with conservation and efficiency measures (very unlikely).

The United States faces serious energy and environmental challenges in the years ahead. Meeting them will prove difficult unless people are better educated about the realities of energy markets and the nature of our future energy needs. In order to guarantee a secure energy future, we must debunk prevalent and problematic energy myths.

Six myths about America's energy use

MYTH: Most of our energy comes from oil.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents believed this to be the case.

FACT: In reality, 60 percent of our energy comes from non-oil sources.

Growing electricity use accounts for more than 85 percent of growth in our energy demand since 1980; this deserves greater focus from policy-makers and media.

MYTH: Saudi Arabia provides more oil to the United States than does any other foreign country.

When asked for the largest source of foreign oil, 55 percent guessed Saudi Arabia.

FACT: Canada provides the United States with more foreign oil than any other country.

An erroneous belief in our overdependence on Middle Eastern oil leads to an illegitimate fear of having energy used as an economic weapon against us.

MYTH: The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was fatal.

More than 80 percent of respondents did not disagree.

FACT: No one died from the accident at Three Mile Island.

Untenable safety concerns prevent a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that could be achieved by turning to nuclear power as an energy source.

MYTH: Our cities are becoming more polluted and our forests are shrinking.

Nearly 84 percent believe cities are increasingly polluted; 67 percent believe logging and development are shrinking our forests.

FACT: Trends suggest that the air in our cities is becoming cleaner and we are experiencing annual net gains for forest area.

Inaccurate assumptions about our environment encourage onerous regulation and limit urban development.

MYTH: The Kyoto Protocol would require all countries to cut emissions.

Almost 60 percent believe that is, in fact, required by the protocol.

FACT: The Kyoto Protocol has exempted large emitters like China and India; analysts have shown it would be unlikely to reduce global warming.

The cost to the American economy, however, is estimated to be between $13 billion and $397 billion in 2010.

MYTH: The U.S. can meet its future energy demand solely through conservation and efficiency measures.

Nearly 70 percent agreed with this statement.


FACT: We will need 30 percent more energy in 2030 than we consume today—not a demand that can be met through mere conservation.

Our needs will be met by introducing new energy sources—like nuclear power.

Source: The Center for Energy Policy and the Environment, The Manhattan Institute

Are we running out of oil?

Near-apocalyptic predictions of the imminent demise of the world's petroleum supplies have been a regular feature of the energy industry for more than a century. Here is a partial listing of such milestones, as compiled by The Manhattan Institute.

* 1874—State geologist of Pennsylvania said that the U.S. had only enough oil to last four years.

* 1885—U.S. Geological Survey said that California had "little or no chance of finding oil." California would go on to become one of the United States' largest domestic oil suppliers. The Golden State has produced more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil in the last quarter-century alone.

* 1914—The U.S. Bureau of Mines claimed that the country had only a 10-year supply of oil.

* 1916—The U.S. Bureau of Mines warned about "a crisis of the first magnitude."

* 1940—The U.S. Bureau of Mines predicted that the U.S. would exhaust its domestic oil reserves by 1954.

* 1969—According to estimates, the state of Oklahoma had 125 million barrels of oil left in the ground. Over the next quarter-century, Oklahoma would produce 4.5 billion barrels of crude oil.

* 1972—The Club of Rome estimated that only 550 billion barrels of oil remained in the earth. In just the last two decades, however, the world has used 600 billion.

* 1980—Energy Secretary James Schlesinger announced that America's "energy future is bleak" and likely to grow bleaker. Schlesinger warned about "chronic stringency" in the decades ahead. By the mid-1980s, a worldwide glut of oil drove prices down from a high of over $60 per barrel to under $20 per barrel (2004 dollars). Prices remained under $30 per barrel (dropping to as little as $12) until 2004.

* 1997—British oil analyst Colin Campbell predicted peak world production was just around the corner and claimed that the world was on the brink of war, starvation and possible extinction.

This piece originally appeared in

This piece originally appeared in