Alongside the war in Iraq, Americans worry most about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a leading pollster said Thursday.
While most appeared fatalistic over problems like job outsourcing, around half said the government can do something about energy dependence, according to a survey run by Daniel Yankelovich, funded by the Ford Foundation, and published by the Council on Foreign Relations in its journal Foreign Affairs.
Environmentalists appeared to validate that sentiment, separately highlighting rapid growth in homespun energy alternatives and urging policymakers to boost support for the sector.
Almost 90 percent of the 1,000 Americans canvassed in January for the Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index said dependence on foreign energy jeopardized national security.
Forty-six percent gave policymakers a failing grade for their efforts to wean the nation off foreign oil and natural gas.
And 55 percent said they worried that foreign conflicts would drive up oil prices or cut off supplies. Only 42 percent said so last August but since then, U.S. consumers have been buffeted by a hurricane-induced slump in domestic oil production, tension in foreign oil fields, and record oil industry profits.
Yankelovich, chairman of nonpartisan pollsters Public Agenda, said those figures constitute a ''tipping point.''
''The oil-dependency issue now meets all the criteria for having reached the tipping point: an overwhelming majority expresses concern about the issue, the intensity of the public's unease has reached significant levels, and the public believes the government is capable of addressing the issue far more effectively than it has until now,'' Yankelovich wrote in an analysis of the survey.
Only the Iraq war achieved that benchmark when his organization conducted a similar poll last August.
The issue could lose some political steam were the price of gasoline to fall in coming months, he acknowledged, ''but with supplies of oil tight and geopolitical tensions high, public pressure is likely to grow.''
President George W. Bush showcased several proposals to reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil during his State of the Union speech at the end of January. The media have depicted those measures as generally insufficient.
Alternatives to oil and natural gas have been gaining ground in the U.S. energy market, inspiring leading environmentalists to declare that energy markets are in for a seismic shift.
''The question for oil executives is whether you're in the oil business or the energy business,'' Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, told industry chiefs last September at the World Petroleum Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa.
To be sure, oil accounts for about 30 percent of global energy use while renewable alternatives--power wrung from the sun, tide, wind, farm waste, and heat held under Earth's surface--make up a scant two percent.
According to environmental and market analysts, however, investment in and the market share of renewable energy sources have grown apace.
In particular, ''wind energy is emerging as a centerpiece of the new energy economy because it is abundant, inexpensive, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign,'' meaning that it does not add to global warming, said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. Scientists blame global warming for increases in storms, floods, and droughts as well as the spread of tropical diseases in temperate zones.
Last year, U.S. wind-generating capacity grew 36 percent to 9,149 megawatts. It could expand by another 50 percent this year, Brown said.
According to Brown, a pioneer in his field, enough wind energy can be harnessed from three states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--to satisfy national electricity needs.
All at falling prices.
The cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to 4-6 cents today, Brown said.
Indeed, many consumers of 'green electricity'--wind energy, for the most part--now pay less for their electricity than do customers using conventional power.
''When Austin Energy, the publicly owned utility in Austin, Texas, launched its GreenChoice program in 2000, customers opting for green electricity paid a premium,'' said Brown. ''During the fall of 2005, climbing natural gas prices pulled conventional electricity costs above those of wind-generated electricity.''
''This crossing of the cost lines in Austin and several other communities is a milestone in the U.S. shift to a renewable energy economy,'' he added.
Austin Energy buys wind-generated electricity under 10-year, fixed-price contracts and passes this stable price on to its GreenChoice subscribers, Brown explained.
Among customers signing up for the option were corporate majors Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, IBM, Samsung, and 3M.
In the public sector, the Round Rock, Texas school district expects to save local taxpayers $2 million over 10 years by switching to green electricity, Brown said.
Despite media coverage that has focused on opposition to large wind turbine installations in places like Cape Cod, he added, most locales have welcomed the technology and commercial wind farms have been set up in 30 states.
He cited the example of upstate New York, where dairy farmers in Lewis County near Lake Ontario embraced the 195-turbine Maple Ridge Wind Farm--and the $5,000-$10,000 annual royalty offered for each of the turbines on their land, which they still could use for pasture or other productive purposes.
''Rural communities welcome wind farms because they provide income to farmers and ranchers, skilled jobs, cheap electricity, and additional tax revenue to upgrade schools and maintain roads,'' said Brown.
Policymakers in Washington could aid the growth of renewable energy--and help America outgrow its oil dependence--by preserving or enhancing incentives such as the production tax credit, aimed at offsetting subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power, Brown said.