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Public split over elimination of U.S. energy subsidies, poll finds

Fifty-four percent oppose doing away with subsidies for oil, gas, coal, nuclear or renewable energy, while 47% favor the idea. Support for building more nuclear power plants has fallen dramatically.

April 26, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Wind turbines near Mojave, Calif., generate power.
Wind turbines near Mojave, Calif., generate power. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

The American public is divided about whether to eliminate federal subsidies for any form of energy and is giving less support to nuclear power and U.S. funding of renewable energy, a new poll has found.

Fifty-four percent of respondents opposed doing away with subsidies for oil, gas, coal, nuclear or renewable energy, while 47% favored the idea. Support for building more nuclear power plants has fallen dramatically, to 42% from 61% in 2008.

The Yale-George Mason University poll being released Thursday found that 76% of Americans support regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas pollutant and that two-thirds believe the U.S. should pursue policies to reduce its carbon footprint.

Support for federal funding of renewable energy appears to be slipping, perhaps in response to the bankruptcy of the solar manufacturing company Solyndra, which had received federal loan guarantees.

Nearly 80% of Americans support federal funding of renewable energy research, but those who say they strongly support it has dropped to 36%, down from 53% in 2008. In addition, those who say they oppose the funding has more than doubled to 21%, up from 8% in 2008.

A handful of recent polls have identified renewable energy as a wedge issue, particularly among Republicans.

"All of this is politicized — climate change is politicized; that's part of the real problem right now," said Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale research scientist who was among those who analyzed the poll results.

"Back in 1997, Democrats and Republicans were not that far apart on this issue," he said. "The gap between the two parties has widened and widened ever since."

Leiserowitz said public support for renewable energy remains strong, despite the slippage. Some of that support has come at the expense of the oil and gas industry, even as the poll found that 62% of Americans favor offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters. That number, too, has decreased.

In a nod to the political season, pollsters asked respondents if they were likely to support a candidate who advocated increasing taxes on coal, oil and natural gas, if the federal income tax was reduced by the same amount — in what is sometimes called a tax swap. About 61% said they would be more likely to favor a candidate who supported such a carbon tax, while 20% said they would be less likely.

Support for the revenue-neutral tax falls along predictable party lines: 51% of Republicans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported a carbon tax, compared with 71% of Democrats. Among independents or those with no party affiliation the figure was 60%.

The online survey has a 3% margin of error.

A Pew Research Center study last month found that Americans still consider developing alternative sources of energy a higher priority than expanding exploration of fossil fuels, but the gap has narrowed by 11 percentage points in the last year.

A survey released Wednesday found that more than 2 out of 3 respondents think it is "a bad idea for the nation to 'put on hold' progress toward cleaner energy sources during the current economic difficulty."

That poll, released by two nonprofit groups, Women's Energy Matters and Civil Society Institute, suggests strong support for renewable energy, finding that 73% agree that federal energy spending should shift to wind and solar.

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