Wisconsin supports biofuels — in a partisan way

While almost two-thirds of Wisconsinites support the use and production of biofuels, less than half think the government should subsidize their development, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.

The researchers also found that while about 60 percent of respondents believe the free market should provide the incentive to invest in technology to make fuels from plants or other organic materials, almost as many doubt the oil industry will go that route unless the government requires it, according to researchers Dietram Scheufele and Bret Shaw, both professors of Life Sciences Communication at the UW-Madison.

The survey was conducted as part of the most recent Badger Poll, a telephone survey conducted in collaboration with the UW Survey Center among almost 600 Wisconsin adults between April and June 2009.

Disagreements over whether biofuel development should be spurred by policies or the market reflect clear ideological rifts among Wisconsinites, the researchers say. About 60 percent of Democrats support the use of government subsidies for biofuels research, but less than 40 percent of Republicans agree. Similarly, about three-fourths of Republicans think “the free market should regulate biofuels,” a view that is shared by just 44 percent of Democrats.

But a majority of both Democrats and Republicans (60 percent and 51 percent, respectively), believe that without governmental pressure, the oil industry will never invest in biofuel development.

“These ideological rifts are consistent with what we have seen for other emerging technologies, where pundits and commentators on both sides of the aisle have tried to reframe the issue for their electoral base,” says Scheufele. “What is interesting is the agreement among Republicans and Democrats on what it will take to get industry buy-in.”

The researchers did find quite a few points of agreement. Republicans and Democrats share the view that biofuels will protect the environment and help the U.S. economy. In particular, both groups agree that biofuels are less damaging to the environment than petroleum-based fuels and that biofuels burn cleaner than regular gasoline. Most Republicans and Democrats are also confident that biofuels production will create more jobs and help strengthen the U.S. economy.

“These areas of agreement bode well for a political solution on renewable energies down the road, especially since we’re seeing bipartisan agreement among citizens on both the environmental and economic advantages,” says Shaw.

Republicans and Democrats diverge when it comes to connecting biofuels to other political issues. More than two-thirds of Democrats think biofuels can help the U.S. maintain global leadership in science and technology, compared to about half of Republicans. About half of Republicans worry about a potential increase in food prices due to biofuels. Less than 40 percent of Democrats have the same concern.

The survey also tested knowledge about biofuels. Given nine true-or-false questions, on average, respondents were able to answer five correctly. More than three-fourths knew that biofuels can be produced from materials other than food crops and that more than 80 percent of the gasoline sold in Wisconsin already contains ethanol. Only a third correctly answered questions about whether Wisconsin biofuels producers used about half of the state’s corn yield last year (they did), or if fossil fuels account for more than 95 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. each year (they don’t).

“There is certainly a lot of room for public education about these renewable energies,” says Scheufele, “especially as we’re exploring new ways of producing them more cost-effectively and cleanly.”