Broad voter support for federal ‘nudge’ on renewables — poll 

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

More than two-thirds of U.S. voters across the political spectrum approve of federal policies that promote “automatic” use of renewables, according to new polling conducted by President Obama’s first regulatory czar.

The recent survey of 563 Americans devised by renowned Harvard University legal scholar and former White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs head Cass Sunstein explores voter attitudes toward “soft” government interventions intended to “nudge” behaviors while avoiding strict mandates. Administered by Survey Sampling International, the poll has a 4.1-point margin of error.

Sunstein concludes that the public generally supports federal efforts to influence behaviors in the health and safety realm, citing as examples disclosure of calories at chain restaurants, campaigns against distracted driving and automatic enrollment of employees into pension plans.

“Republicans and Democrats agree that soft interventions can help people meet their own goals with respect to health, safety and economic security,” he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Americans might not like paternalism, but when they are asked about specific nudges, they tend to be supportive. And when they dislike some interventions — as they definitely do — Republicans and Democrats usually agree as well, suspecting that government has illegitimate goals, or that it is acting inconsistently with people’s interests or values.”

The automatic use of “green energy” with an “opt-out” provision is among the “popular nudges” Sunstein cites, with 72 percent of respondents expressing approval for the statement: “The federal government encourages (without requiring) electricity providers to adopt a system in which consumers would be automatically enrolled in a ‘green’ (environmentally friendly) energy supplier, but could opt out if they wished.”

Of that total, 82 percent of Democrats backed the statement, while 66 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans concurred.

When asked about supporting the policy if it were mandatory, overall support slipped a few points to 67 percent across the political spectrum, with 79 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans approving.

But energy also made an appearance in the “unpopular nudges” in Sunstein’s research. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they approved of a hypothetical policy in which the federal government required airlines to add a $10 per ticket charge to an airline ticket to offset carbon emissions from the flight.

Even with an opt-out provision for people who objected to the policy, 43 percent of Democrats approved, while 34 percent of independents and 25 percent of Republicans agreed.

That may give pause to U.S. EPA as it works to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector (E&ENews PM, June 10).

Earlier this month, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he planned to hold hearings to bring EPA’s aviation plan “out in the open,” including by inviting witnesses to highlight the potential economic effect on airline tickets.