Public Opinion Shifts in Favor of Domestic Oil and Gas Production

Published September 1, 2008

Reeling from skyrocketing gasoline prices and soaring electricity costs, a clear majority of Americans now favor increased drilling for oil and natural gas on U.S. territory and on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), polls show.

Several Polls Confirm Support

Public opinion polls taken in late June show Americans favor increased domestic production of energy over environmental concerns. The shift shows up across the political spectrum and among all age groups.

A June 17 Rasmussen poll found 67 percent of Americans were in favor of offshore drilling, and only 18 percent opposed. Sixty-four percent of those polled by Rasmussen believe increased drilling will lead to lower energy prices. A Reuters/Zogby poll taken one day later found 60 percent supporting offshore drilling, with 40 percent opposed.

Results from a June 19 Gallup poll were similar, with 57 percent backing offshore drilling and 41 percent opposed.

Even more revealing was a poll released July 1 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The poll showed 47 percent of those surveyed now rate energy exploration, drilling, and building new power plants as the top priority, compared with 35 percent who held that view in February.

Pew also found the number of people who believe energy conservation is more important than energy exploration has declined by 10 percentage points since February, to 45 percent. Sixty percent of those surveyed see increasing energy supplies as more important than protecting the environment, up from 54 percent in February.

Support for energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) rose during the same time period, from 42 percent to 50 percent, according to the Pew poll.

Support Is Broad-Based

Much of the support for increased domestic energy production now comes from groups that have traditionally rejected such activities–liberals, Democrats, independents, women, young people, and college graduates.

Just over half of Americans age 18 to 29 (51 percent) believe production is more important than energy conservation, up from 26 percent in February, according to the Pew poll. Self-professed liberals supporting increased energy exploration more than doubled, from 22 percent to 45 percent.

Pew also found the gender gap on energy exploration has all but disappeared.

Landscape Has Changed

With the November election just a few months away, the Pew study found the political landscape on energy has shifted substantially. About the same proportion of Democrats (46 percent) as Republicans (43 percent) now say expanded exploration, instead of increased conservation, should take precedence.

In February, by contrast, far more Republicans than Democrats expressed this view. The rise among Democrats was an astonishing 16 percentage points in five months.

Support for drilling in ANWR also has increased, though it remains more divided than opinions on offshore exploration. Fully 75 percent of Republicans now favor drilling in ANWR, up from 63 percent. Just 36 percent of Democrats surveyed support drilling in ANWR, a rise of 5 percentage points from February.

Bush Taking Action

Riding the wave of public opinion, President George W. Bush on July 14 turned up the heat on Congress by issuing an executive order lifting a White House ban on offshore exploration that has stood since his father was president.

A second prohibition on offshore drilling, this one imposed by Congress, must also be lifted before drilling can start.

“The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress,” Bush said. “Now the ball is squarely in Congress’s court.”

Actions Have Consequences

“The federal government has made it illegal to produce taxpayer-owned energy from taxpayer-owned lands for nearly three decades,” said Tom Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. “That’s a fact that consumers need to understand as they cope with skyrocketing prices for everything from groceries to gasoline.

“Most Americans understand the law of supply and demand,” Pyle added, “but they may not know that America is the only developed nation in the world that restricts access to its own offshore energy resources, or that an annual vote in Congress is required to continue that policy.”

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.