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Energy Use: The Human Dimension
energy a building owner can save by insulating or weatherizing. In these cases the economic interests are evident, so a wise consumer will be suspicious.
But there are also conflict and contradiction among supposedly disinterested government sources of expertise—also for understandable reasons. Agency personnel want to protect their programs’ missions. When the Department of Energy mounted a conservation effort, advocates of the electric car competed for funds with proponents of car pooling and other energy-saving alternatives: consumers were being told to change travel behavior by one part of a government agency while being told by another part of the same agency that new technologies would soon make such changes unnecessary. More recently, statements from DOE have assured Americans that market forces will act automatically to solve the country’s energy problems, but this position discredits all the department’s previous statements, as well as many of its active programs and policies in the area of conservation.
The budget process encourages governmental agencies to oversell their programs. This practice often leads to the programs’ being discredited in the future. Proponents of new energy production or conservation programs tend to sound alarms: “We are running out of energy,” “The balance of payments is crippling the nation,” “Dependence on Middle Eastern oil threatens national security.” Whether true or not, such statements tend to strain the credulity of people who have not experienced oil shortages or realistic threats of war. Proponents of new energy programs also tend to overstate the benefits of their programs, leaving the impression that the Alaska pipeline, or synthetic fuels, or price increases, or some other policy choice will “solve” the energy crisis. Such rhetoric suggests that the new program is a panacea. It undermines exhortations by other agencies—or other parts of the same agency—to conserve energy, and it sets the stage for disappointment and discrediting of the agency when the program falls short of unrealistic expectations.
The same sort of overselling has also happened with government conservation programs. For example, government sources once recommended cellulose insulation because of its high resistance to the passage of heat. Then, after several homes were insulated, cellulose was discovered to be a fire hazard. Apparently the recommendation had been made without sufficient testing to ensure safety and earn consumer confidence. Such tragic blunders tend to reduce the credibility of all government agencies that promote energy conservation.
The credibility of government information is also compromised by pressures from political and interest groups. Such pressures have influenced agencies’ positions, sometimes even leading to shifts on points of fact. For example, when the initial regulations for the Residential Conservation Service (RCS) were being drawn in 1979, the decision was made to rec-