Study finds political factors also contribute to public perception of energy issues

Tue, 06/03/2014


George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

LAWRENCE — What puts U.S. energy policy at the forefront of the public's mind?

For decades the popular notion has centered on the cost of gasoline, and past research has highlighted crises that seem to spotlight energy issues in the public eye. However, a University of Kansas researcher has found that political dynamics in the country also play a key role, meaning the impetus for change in energy policy is not entirely dependent on market forces or unplanned events.

"It is often thought that economic supply-and-demand issues control, and indeed dominate, the public perception of energy importance. We show that it is equally important to consider the balance of power in Congress," said Mark Joslyn, an associate professor of political science who co-authored the study.

The article "The Determinants of Salience on Energy Issues," by Joslyn and William R. Lowry, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, appears in the May issue of Review of Policy Research.

They examined how often The New York Times covered energy issues between 1952 and 2009 to determine how prominent, or salient, energy issues seemed to be over six decades.

The number of Times articles spiked greatly during the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 and again in 1979-80 when events in the Middle East — like the Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War — decreased oil output, Joslyn said. During those events, more than 500 energy-related articles appeared in the Times. However, after that, the numbers of articles devoted to energy issues did not exceed 150 per year.

Joslyn said those crises likely haven't been matched in terms and magnitude, meaning a crisis would need to be sustained much longer or strike with greater intensity to spark significant legislative movement.

Other than gas prices and events that can send a shock to the public and lead to an energy crisis, Joslyn and Lowry found that the makeup of the U.S. House since 1950 played a significant role in putting energy issues in the forefront of the public's mind.

"Liberal members pursue more active energy agendas," Joslyn said. "They are more likely to hold congressional hearings on energy issues and initiate legislation on a host of energy concerns. So while the salience of energy turns on economic issues, such as gas prices, political matters cannot be ignored."

One issue that seems to qualify as a crisis has become political. Joslyn said climate change and its effects are seen as a genuine crisis that has led to discussion of policies that would favor renewable energy sources and lessen reliance on fossil fuels.

"The issue is now effectively politicized, and so policy change is presently straggled by conventional partisan conflict," Joslyn said. "A crisis needs to be universally perceived as such, and increasingly politics influences public perception."

He said the study was only suggestive about the linkage between salience and significant energy legislation but because politics plays a key part in placing energy issues in a prominent light that also brings an added element.

"While energy may be high on the public agenda, the government or decision agenda may be far different," Joslyn said. "Intervening between public demands and government response are a host of obstacles such as well-placed special interests that often prove insurmountable for meaningful and comprehensive energy policy."

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