The bad news for Drill Baby Drill advocates: the Gulf spill at Deepwater Horizon has forced a rebound for prioritizing environmental concerns over energy needs among Americans. The good news: it hasn’t eliminated majority support for off-shore drilling … yet. The long-term trend over the past three years that finally put energy needs as a higher priority only took a month to reverse after the inability of BP and the Obama administration to stop the massive spill:
Between March and today, with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill intervening, Americans’ preferences for prioritizing between environmental protection and energy production have shifted from a somewhat pro-energy stance to an even stronger pro-environment stance. …
Democrats had already put more emphasis on environmental protection than on energy production in March, but that position has gained strength among Democrats today. Independents’ views have flipped from a majority pro-energy stance in March to a majority pro-environment one today. In contrast, Republicans’ opinions have not changed since the oil spill occurred; they continue to prioritize energy production over environmental protection by a 2-to-1 margin.
That means three years of lost ground, which will take at least several months after a cleanup to reverse. It’s not difficult to understand why this reaction occurred, and it’s not just because of the pictures and attention in the media at the moment. That trend owed at least some of its gains to a sense that the oil industry had figured out how to keep oil from spilling from off-shore rigs, or at the least knew how to stop a blowout quickly. Accidents have gone down significantly, but the clearly desperate response from BP and the White House shows that no one really knows how to handle a situation like this — which saps the confidence of the American public.
Fortunately, though, Americans are keeping an open mind, at least for now:
President Barack Obama’s decision to extend a moratorium on new deepwater ocean drilling comes at a time when Americans are divided, with 50% in favor and 46% opposed, on increased drilling for oil and gas off U.S. coasts. However, most stop short of favoring a prohibition on drilling, as, on a follow-up question, 19% of Americans say they are opposed to all drilling in U.S. coastal areas. …
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in early April — before the spill occurred — asked the same question of registered voters and found 70% favoring increased drilling in U.S. coastal areas. That number dipped to 60% in early May, shortly after the oil spill occurred. In the new USA Today/Gallup poll, 52% of registered voters support drilling, suggesting support has slipped further as the oil spill has expanded in size and begun to come ashore.
Since April, Democratic voters’ support for increased coastal oil drilling has fallen well below the majority level. Independent voters’ support has also declined significantly, but remains just above a majority in the latest poll. Meanwhile, there has been just a slight decline in the percentage of Republican voters who are in favor of increased drilling.
If BP and the oil industry want to keep those two lines from going any further in their current direction, they had better hope that the “top kill” procedure works to seal off the blowout and that the cleanup happens quickly. Otherwise, “Drill Baby Drill” will give way to “the spill, baby, the spill” and American energy production will wind up relying even more on foreign producers.
Update: Several commenters are making a good point about changing the dynamic on where to drill, rather than whether to drill. This kind of problem wouldn’t have occurred in ANWR or in the shale areas of the US. When the public resistance ebbs, that will be a good argument to make.