Presidential Alternative Energy Policy and Public Opinion: History, Barriers, and Lessons for a Sustainable Energy Future

I began writing my paper with the intention of developing a better understanding of the struggle within the Executive Branch for a national energy policy, a fight that is now approaching four decades long. This goal has been taken up with more or less zeal by every president since Jimmy Carter, who really began the quest for a national energy policy in the wake of multiple oil price shocks during the 1970s. In pushing for comprehensive national policies on energy, Carter became the first president to make alternative energy and energy conservation a key component of his administration, an element that I sought to focus on specifically.

I sought to follow the thread of federal alternative energy policies through the five presidential administrations that followed Carter, analyzing them chronologically from Reagan through Obama. In conducting my analysis, I sought to compare the policies that individual executives pushed for to public opinion data from that same time. The goal of such a process was to develop a greater understanding of whether or not presidents had been advocating for policies that the American public at large had a desire to see implemented in an attempt to draw conclusions about the success or failure of specific policies. I also wanted to develop macro scale conclusions about the success (or lack thereof) of national alternative energy policies more broadly over the last few decades, which I incorporated into a series of observations and policy recommendations at the end of my paper.

In conducting my research, perhaps the most striking conclusion that I came to was that public support for national alternative energy policies has remained consistently high from 1978 through the present day. Aside from nuclear energy and increased taxes (such as those placed on low-mileage cars), nearly every public opinion poll taken on the subject of alternative energy illustrated that an overwhelming majority of the American public was in favor of an increase in the implementation of alternative energy and energy conservation policies. This support even persisted through presidential administrations like that of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both of whom did little on the alternative energy front.

On its face, this seems like great news for anyone in the alternative energy camp, as public opinion should, in theory, drive policymakers to action. This has proven not to be the case, however, as relatively little progress has been made on the alternative energy front nationally. I posit a handful of reasons for why this might be the case, including a lack of policy continuity across presidential administrations and simultaneous public support for contradictory energy goals (e.g. supporting increased solar power (94% support) while also supporting increased coal, oil, and gas reserved (87% support), as was the case in 1979. These incongruous policy goals limit the fervor with which the public will support alternative energy policies specifically, which likely partially accounts for the overall lack of success of the push for a federal alternative energy plan.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you guys next week!

Matt Genova

Vanderbilt University

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