August 11, 2022

News Analysis: Americans Support Offshore Drilling Even if Washington Wavers

Since the beginning of 2010, Washington has caromed from a restrictive approach to drilling to a permissive policy closely mirroring that of the Bush administration to a near-total shutdown of offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. After that fatal accident, the administration decreed a deepwater drilling moratorium, lifted it six months later, then took five more months before beginning to issue drilling permits.

Throughout that time, the American public’s attitudes toward domestic oil and gas development have been remarkably consistent: Americans are in favor of it, though Democrats and those on the coasts are much less likely than Republicans and those in the South and Southwest to be supportive.

National support for offshore drilling and for domestic oil and gas development generally dipped for a time after the BP disaster — from a strong majority to a bare majority — but quickly rebounded.

A Gallup poll taken immediately after the gulf spill showed that 50 percent of Americans supported offshore drilling while 46 percent opposed it. By March of this year, public support had risen to 60 percent versus 37 percent.

The administration’s offshore drilling policy, like its fervor for domestic production more generally, has gone through rapid changes. In March 2010, President Obama announced that the United States would make vast tracts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Arctic oceans available for leasing by oil and gas companies. After the BP spill began on April 20, 2010, he declared those areas off-limits for at least five years. Then, last month, the president announced that he would permit accelerated development in Alaska, the gulf and along parts of the Atlantic coast.

Administration officials defend the policy changes as reasonable responses to changed circumstances. Mr. Obama came to office as a proponent of increased domestic oil and gas development, as part of a broader strategy to reduce oil imports. Accordingly, they said, he took steps to accelerate development. He then imposed a sharp cutback after the BP disaster to give regulators and oil companies time to put new safeguards in place.

After the president was satisfied that drilling could resume safely, and in response to public anxiety about high fuel costs, he shifted back to a more pro-development stance, the aides said.

“These spikes in gas prices are often temporary,” Mr. Obama said on May 14 in a radio and Internet address, “and while there are no quick fixes to the problem, there are a few steps we should take that make good sense.”

The public’s support for offshore drilling has tracked changes in the price of gasoline. When gas prices were near record highs in the summer of 2008 and again this spring, support for domestic drilling was highest.

Conversely, unease about the effects of offshore drilling peaked after the BP accident, which killed 11 rig workers and spewed nearly five million barrels of crude into the gulf.

“News of that incident has faded, possibly lessening Americans’ resistance to coastal area drilling,” Gallup said when releasing its poll in March that showed 60 percent of Americans supportive.

The poll found that 49 percent of Americans favor opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, a step the Obama administration strongly opposes. That is the highest level of support for drilling in the Arctic refuge since Gallup first asked the question in 2002.

The nationwide poll of 1,021 adults was conducted by telephone in early March.

“Timing is everything,” said Jack N. Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s most prominent lobbying group in Washington. “As the price of gasoline has increased, public attention has turned once again to the question of energy. When they hear their elected officials continue to resist development of American resources, they are appalled.”

The Gallup survey found that men are more likely than women to support drilling offshore and in Alaska and support is much higher among Republicans than Democrats. It also found regional variations, with the strongest backing for aggressive oil exploration in the South and the most significant opposition along the East and West Coasts.

And while the public appears to support exploiting domestic oil and gas resources, there is also skepticism about the economic and environmental costs of America’s continued reliance on oil. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in March asked how important it was for the United States to develop an alternative to oil as a major source of energy. Fully 94 percent of respondents said it was very or somewhat important to do so.

The Times/CBS News poll was conducted by telephone with 1,266 adults nationwide.

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow in Washington at the Center for American Progress, said that while the public tends to support more domestic oil and gas drilling, they see it as only one egg in a basket of policies to lower energy costs, reduce dependence on foreign oil and clean up the environment.

“Americans generally support an all-of-the-above strategy,” Mr. Weiss said. “They say, ‘Let’s have more offshore drilling, but also higher mileage standards for our cars and trucks. Let’s crack down on the speculators and invest in electric cars, natural gas trucks and biofuels.’ ”

Mr. Gerard said that Mr. Obama’s sporadic and reluctant support for increased domestic production was largely politically driven and not part of a comprehensive energy strategy. But he praised the president for at least appearing responsive to public opinion in calling for more American oil and gas.

“Until the economy gets back on track, until the unemployment rate comes down, and with the price of energy high, I think you’ll see the president focus more and more on the supply side,” he said. “And as pressure continues to mount as we get closer to Election Day, I think you’ll see more of that.”

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