Drilling Down: Attitudes on Offshore Oil

Apr 30, 2010 8:37am

Two competing concerns inform public attitudes on offshore oil drilling – one economic, but the other, also powerful, environmental. With the Deepwater Horizon spill pushing into Louisiana’s fragile marshlands, the latter complicates matters considerably for the Obama administration.

Having said last month it would expand offshore drilling, the administration today began calibrating its policy, with David Axelrod, the White House senior advisor, telling George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that no drilling will go forward “until there’s been an adequate review of what’s happened here.”

That's wise, given public attitudes. High gasoline prices and reliance on foreign oil both encourage support for new drilling, as recent polling has shown. But surveys from the time of the last major spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, show that environmental concerns also take a place at the table.

In April 1988 just under half of Americans in a Cambridge Reports survey, 49 percent, favored “stronger regulations on where and how the oil companies drill for offshore oil and gas.” But in April 1989, the month after the Exxon Valdez spill, this spiked to 62 percent – and by March 1990, to 70 percent. It subsided to 54 percent by 1994, perhaps in a belief regulations had been improved, e.g. with a new requirement for double-hulled tankers.

Another question in April 1989 asked if the need for oil were so pressing that it was worth a major offshore spill every five years or so. Twenty-six percent said yes, 53 percent no. By March 1990, 70 percent said no. It was still there in 1994, when this data series ended.

More recently, economic rather than environmental concerns have been at the fore. Seventy percent of registered voters in a Fox News poll last month supported increased offshore drilling; in an ABC/Post poll last summer, a similar 64 percent of Americans favored new oil and gas exploration. In a January 2009 poll by the Public Agenda Foundation, moreover, 65 percent of Americans favored “reducing environmental restrictions on drilling for oil and natural gas in coastal areas and Alaska.”

That survey included several questions about dependence on foreign oil and the cost of fuel. All these three, and others recently, were asked in the midst of a severe economic downturn, with attendant price sensitivity – and with no major spill in recent memory.

The impact of Deepwater Horizon on broader public attitudes on offshore drilling depends on factors yet to be known – what caused it, and, especially, how bad the environmental damage becomes. But it does introduce a new and potentially powerful factor, one the administration little could have expected when it lifted the offshore drilling ban just a month ago.


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