Californians, Floridians Support Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling, Polls Say

Published November 1, 2008

Recent polls show the citizens of California and Florida, where opening the Outer Continental Shelf to offshore oil and natural gas exploration has historically been controversial, have changed their minds and now support natural resource recovery.

High oil and gasoline prices appear to have motivated the switch, and the change in opinion is apparent at the highest levels of the two states’ governments.

Opposition Faltering

Since world oil and gasoline prices began to rise in 2001, national opinion polls have shown growing numbers of Americans are willing to allow drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Until recently, however, public opinion in several coastal states, California and Florida foremost among them, continued to lag the nation and reject calls for increased offshore oil production. Objections from the governors, legislatures, and congressional contingents of these two key electoral states have been critical in derailing efforts in the U.S. House and Senate to allow new offshore production beyond the existing oil and natural gas fields in the Western Gulf of Mexico.

For instance, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) stymied efforts in the previous Republican-controlled Congress to expand drilling off the coasts—despite support from President George W. Bush for the idea.

Until late August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had vowed to prevent any vote on offshore drilling. Since then, she has reversed herself slightly, saying she would consider debating very limited new OCS production—as part of a package that added new taxes on the oil industry to fund renewable energy subsidies.

California Opinions Changing

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) continues to oppose new drilling. But he is feeling the heat for that opposition.

Separate polls in California in late July and in August found while most Californians are still in favor of the state’s efforts to fight global warming (63 percent), support falls to just 47 percent if those efforts would impose higher energy costs.

According to an August poll by EMC Research, four times as many Californians polled thought high gasoline prices are the most pressing issue facing Californians as thought global warming or the environment was the most critical problem. In addition, for the first time in three decades, according to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a majority (51 percent) of Californians support new offshore drilling. Support increased consistently among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike.

The County Board of Supervisors in notably liberal Santa Barbara voted on August 26 to send a letter to Schwarzenegger urging him to change state policy and allow offshore drilling.

The move was especially significant because it was an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 that many credit as being the major inspiration for the modern environmental movement.

Floridians’ Self-Interest

High gas prices have likewise motivated the tourism industry and elected officials in Florida to open their minds to the possibility of offshore oil production.

Two recent polls of Floridians demonstrate wide and growing margins support increased offshore oil production. A Mason-Dixon poll released August 28 showed statewide support for drilling topped 61 percent.

That poll came on the heels of one conducted by McLaughlin and Associates showing even stronger support for oil production off Florida’s coast—more than 73 percent, up more than 10 points from a similar poll conducted in 2007.

The McLaughlin and Associates poll showed strong support for drilling among Democrats (63 percent) and Republicans (84 percent).

Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida, which commissioned the McLaughlin and Associates poll, said a majority of Floridians have supported offshore drilling for several years.

“The citizens of Florida have long supported drilling,” Bishop said. “Fifty-nine percent supported it in 2005. What’s changed recently is that Florida’s politicians are catching on.”

Bishop cites Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) June 2008 endorsement of Bush’s proposal to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling—an about-face for the governor’s office.

As Bishop put it, “Some politicians, feeling growing pressure due to sustained high prices, are finally willing to stand up to the environmental lobby and support responsible drilling.”

Tourism Industry on Board

Another factor making it easier for Florida’s officials to change their stance on drilling is the fact that the state’s tourism industry, Florida’s biggest business and until recently among its staunchest opponents of offshore oil production, recently showed a new openness to the possibility.

Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency, now says the issue of oil production off Florida’s coast is worthy of debate, and the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus has indicated it, too, is open to a discussion.

Crist sees this more open-minded position as common sense on the industry’s part. In a National Public Radio interview on September 3, he said, “We’re a tourist state. We have to protect the beauty of Florida, but we also need to have people have the opportunity to drive here and afford to do that, too.”

Ball in Congress’s Court

Bishop applauded Crist’s position and noted, “No major environmental harms from offshore oil production have occurred since the 1969 spill in California. This shows that drilling can be done in a responsible manner.

“The reality is we have to have fossil fuels,” Bishop added. “They will continue to dominate our energy supply for at least two more generations, even as we move to the greater use of renewable energy sources in the future.”

Despite shifting public opinion and moderate but increasing support from some public officials in these two large, electorally significant states, it remains unclear whether Congress will allow drilling to proceed. The current moratorium is renewed annually via a provision prohibiting the U.S. Minerals Management Service from spending any money to prepare offshore leases in currently prohibited areas.

Whether Congress continues to renew the moratorium is likely to be a hot-button issue in the months ahead.

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.