Energy: The Purple State Issue

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of AOL Energy. Author credit goes to Peter Gardett.

The 2012 presidential election was truly part of its time not only in the issues it addressed but in the way it was run and analyzed. Large data sets were gathered and poured over and drove not only the campaigns but the streams of analysis that surrounded their outcomes.

Voting data still emerging from the election shows a number of interesting trends, some expected and others surprising. For energy sector observers tracking the public reaction to one of the election’s most pivotal issues, surprises have continued to roll in, reflecting the evolving fortunes and the shifting geographical focus of the energy sector in the US since 2008.

Wind power

image via Shutterstock

In the popular mind, an energy voter would probably be a Texas oilman or possibly – on the other side of the political spectrum – a California environmentalist. Voting results from 2012 show that while those stereotypes still bear elements of truth, they no longer reflect the entire reality: That energy voters live in more places across the US as energy itself becomes a higher profile industry in more parts of the country.

The natural gas sector increasingly important to the economic future of important swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania did not prevent those states from voting for President Obama, hardly a popular figure with traditional leaders of the fossil fuel business. At the same time, the Republican dominance of Texan politics has not kept it from becoming a leader in wind power development despite the technology’s eco-friendly image.

Transparency Cuts Both Ways

New analysts have been crunching numbers using the power of technology and have found a far more “pointalist” reality for voting than the traditional regional divides imply. Data visualization expert John Nelson broke down voting in the 2012 presidential election into tiny clusters and organized them by volume and population, and found that despite some areas of red and blue much of the country ends up appearing as a “purple cloud.” See his very detailed map on his blog here.

Energy has probably always been too broad a sector to fit into neatly partisan boxes. A unionized chemical industry worker whose job depends on natural gas development or a banker trying to hedge his investment exposure to climate change impacts has a complicated decision to make when it comes to their identity politics.

Even more importantly, energy – like politics – is often as much local as it is national. Farmers experiencing the trade-offs that come with hydraulic fracturing under their land or communities nervously eyeing nearby nuclear power plants in the wake of a highly publicized disaster like Fukushima are experiencing the sharp end of an issue that for many Americans remains amorphous.

“At the end of the day, the license to operate comes from the community where the drilling is going to happen,” Department of Energy Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oil and Gas Christopher Smith said recently at a natural gas conference in Washington, DC. His comments bear on other forms of energy production and use as well, as environmental activists at the conference noted many concerns about natural gas production are as much related to the sudden arrival of large-scale industrial activity as to the science of hydraulic fracturing.

That makes the jobs of energy strategists and project developers harder and easier at the same time. It means they need to do less to target their projects to the vicissitudes of the national political scene, but it also means they need to focus on the details and on building local support for their proposals. The data tools that helped us understand the election help the energy sector do their job of winning support better, but they also illustrate the scale of the industry’s challenge.

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