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Press Release · July 19, 2001

Californians Galvanized By Energy Crisis

Most Conserving, Willing to Ante Up to Protect Environment; President, State Leaders Lose Ground

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 19, 2001 – Despite their concern about the state’s energy crisis, Californians remain more dedicated than Americans as a whole to protecting environmental quality, and they are willing to make personal sacrifices – from paying higher prices to practicing conservation – to prove it, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). But the cost of this new-found empowerment may be high for state leaders in 2002: By a wide margin, residents also say that questions of how to address the electricity situation should be decided, not by the governor and legislature, but by voters through the initiative process.

Although the lights have stayed on so far this summer, Californians are more concerned than ever about the energy situation. Eighty-one percent say they are closely watching news reports about the electricity crisis, while 78 percent are closely following news about higher gasoline prices. When asked to name the most important issue facing the state today, 56 percent say electricity prices, supply, and demand, a sharp rise from 43 percent in May and 25 percent in January. Nearly all residents (94%) view electricity as a problem for the state, with 78 percent saying it is a “big problem.” It appears, however, that concern about the long-term consequences of the crisis has eased somewhat: 51 percent of state residents think that the electricity issue will hurt the California economy “a great deal” in the next few years, down from 62 percent in May.

In the short term, many Californians – especially residents with lower incomes – are feeling the pain of higher energy costs. Nearly four in 10 residents say that rising gasoline prices and higher electric bills have been major problems for them, while three in 10 describe rising gas utility bills as a major problem. Residents earning less than $40,000 per year are more likely than those making over $80,000 per year to have major problems with higher gasoline prices (47% to 26%), electric utility bills (49% to 24%), and natural gas utility bills (38% to 17%). Across the state and economic spectrum, most Californians say they have not had significant problems with blackouts or the threat of blackouts.

Earth First: Residents Say They’ll Pay More to Protect Environment

The electricity crisis and its economic consequences have not shaken Californians’ strong desire to maintain the quality of their environment. Sixty-eight percent of state residents – compared to 57 percent of Americans – agree with the statement that we must protect the environment, even if it means higher prices for gasoline and electricity. Despite efforts by the Bush administration to increase public support for their energy plan, the majority of Californians (54%) would prefer to have U.S. energy policy focus on conservation and regulation, rather than the development of new supply. Californians are less likely than the nation as a whole (37% to 44%) to say that expanding exploration, mining, and drilling, and new power plant construction should be the most important U.S. energy priority. Indeed, few Californians believe that higher gasoline prices and electricity shortages in recent months are a good reason to allow new exploration in federally-protected areas. Seventy-one percent of state residents – compared to 56 percent of the nation as a whole – would prefer to see the federal government consider other solutions to the crisis.

“Californians have lived at ‘ground zero’ for higher gasoline and electricity prices for the better part of this year,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “But rather than leading to panic, the crisis has sharpened their focus about the things that are most important for quality of life in the Golden State. They are willing to make personal sacrifices to see that their vision is implemented.”

Nuclear NIMBYs

When it comes to nuclear power, a majority of residents (55%) believe that the dangers of nuclear power are too great, even if increased numbers of nuclear power plants would help solve the nation’s energy problems. Compared to the nation as a whole, Californians are less likely to agree with the view that nuclear power is a necessary ingredient in an overall energy strategy (49% to 38%). A majority of Californians (57%) say they would oppose a proposal to build a nuclear power plant in their region. Latinos are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to believe that the dangers of nuclear power are too great (68% to 49%) and to oppose the development of a nuclear power plant in their region (64% to 52%).

Although a majority opposes the nuclear option, many Californians believe that the solution to the state’s electricity situation is to increase supply. Thirty-nine percent would like to see the problem solved by building more power plants, 26 percent prefer re-regulating the industry, 18 percent favor conservation, and 10 percent support federal price controls. What kinds of power do state residents prefer? Public support is highest for hydroelectric power (42%), followed by natural gas (25%), nuclear (17%), and coal (2%). However, looking beyond the more conventional choices, there is strong support for increasing renewable sources of energy. Two in three Californians say they would favor developing more solar and wind power, even if it meant higher electricity prices.

Californians appear to have sided with Governor Gray Davis on the issue of federal price controls, with 56 percent of residents favoring federal limits on the price of electricity. Although the majority of Republicans (52%) are opposed to federal price caps, a surprisingly large percentage (43%) favor the approach suggested by a Democratic governor and opposed by a Republican president.

Conservation: Californians Walk the Walk

Californians are conserving in large numbers, whether or not they report being affected by higher energy prices. Six in 10 residents say they have done “a lot” to reduce their use of electricity and appliances at home during peak hours (61%) and to lower their electric bill (58%). Four in 10 say they have done a lot to lower their natural gas bill. By contrast, only 21 percent have made substantial changes in their driving habits to save money on gas.

Latinos and Californians earning less than $40,000 are more likely than non-Hispanic whites and residents earning over $80,000 to say they are driving less and to report that they are making major efforts to use less electricity and natural gas. Indeed, more than seven in 10 of the residents for whom electricity price increases were a major problem say they are doing a lot to reduce their energy bill and peak consumption. But surprisingly, more than half of the residents who say that price increases are only a minor problem are also doing a lot to conserve energy.

Dissatisfied with Leadership, Residents Eye Municipal Power, Initiative Process

As the energy crisis lingers and residents begin to take more of an active role in creating solutions, approval ratings for President George W. Bush, Governor Gray Davis, and the state legislature are sliding. President Bush’s job approval rating has fallen to 47 percent from 57 percent in May. And despite his recent visit to the state to talk about energy issues, residents give him lower marks on his handling of the problem: Sixty-three percent say they disapprove, compared to 56 percent in May.

Governor Davis has also lost ground: As many residents now disapprove (45%) as approve (44%) of his performance as governor. In May, 46 percent said they approved and 41 percent disapproved. However, Davis has picked up some support for his efforts on energy. Thirty-nine percent of Californians say they approve of his handling of the electricity crisis, up from 29 percent in May. “Davis’ overall approval ratings and his rating on electricity appear to be converging,” says Baldassare. “In other words, how Californians view the governor on energy may well be how they see him overall. Like it or not, he’s the ‘Energy Governor’ now, not the ‘Education Governor’.”

When asked to compare the president and the governor in terms of blame for and solutions to the state’s electricity problems, residents deliver a split verdict. Governor Davis gets more blame than President Bush (26% to 12%), but also gets higher grades for providing solutions (34% to 8%). When asked what source is “most” to blame for the energy crisis, electric utility companies are named most often (23%), followed by the former governor and legislature (22%), the current governor and legislature (16%), power generators (10%), the Bush administration (9%), and California consumers (8%).

As a growing number of residents blame the current governor and state legislature for energy problems, approval ratings for the legislature have also dropped. More Californians approve (45%) than disapprove (37%) of their performance, but approval is down from 58 percent in January. When asked how much confidence they have in the legislature when it comes to making laws to solve the electricity crisis, 7 percent of residents say they have a great deal of confidence, 46 percent only some, and 45 percent little or none.

In the long run, the majority of Californians feel that it would be a bad idea (52%) rather than a good idea (43%) for the state government to take the place of private electric companies and become permanently involved in producing and distributing electricity. However, they are more positive about the notion of local governments forming municipal power authorities to take the place of private electric companies, with 62 percent supporting the idea. Ultimately, residents see a role for themselves in finding solutions to the energy crisis: By a two-to-one margin, they favor letting the voters decide on state ballot initiatives in 2002, rather than leaving the lawmaking to the governor and legislature.

Other Key Findings

  • Schools: Room for Improvement – Page 2
    Heightened anxiety about electricity has not diminished interest in California’s public education system. The majority of residents (79%) continue to see public school quality as at least somewhat of a problem, with 49 percent saying it is a “big problem.” In assessing progress over the past two years, as many believe that schools have improved (25%) as believe that schools have gotten worse (24%), but most say the quality of K-12 education has stayed the same (40%).
  • Mood of the State – Page 17
    Half of Californians expect bad economic times in the next year, while 41 percent expect good times. Consistent with this economic pessimism, more residents also say the state is headed in the wrong direction (47%) rather than the right direction (44%). The results are similar to the May survey.
  • Stock Watch – Page 20
    Fifty-nine percent of Californians say they are closely following news about the stock market and U.S. economy. Residents in the San Francisco Bay Area (69%) are more likely to be tuning in, with 37 percent saying they are following economic reports “very closely.”

About the Survey

The purpose of the PPIC Statewide Survey is to develop an in-depth profile of the social, economic, and political forces affecting California elections and public policy preferences. PPIC will conduct large-scale public opinion surveys on a regular basis leading up to the 2002 election cycle. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,007 California adult residents interviewed from July 1 to July 10, 2001. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 21.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow and program director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. Dr. Baldassare is the author of numerous books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape (University of California Press, 2000).

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.