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Poll: More Americans now back domestic drilling

March 19, 2012|By Neela Banerjee
  • A man pumps gas into his vehicle in early March in Los Angeles. According to a new Pew Research poll, high prices have driven more people to support expanded oil drilling in the U.S.
A man pumps gas into his vehicle in early March in Los Angeles. According… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP /…)

Struggling with rising prices at the pump, Americans are voicing a greater willingness to develop domestic fossil fuels than they did just a year ago, according to a new poll.

Support for offshore oil drilling has bounced back to levels seen before the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, according to the new survey by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press.  Almost two-thirds (65%) back the expansion of offshore drilling, compared with 57% a year ago and 44% in June 2010, during the gulf spill. 

Conducted from March 7 to March 11, the survey interviewed 1,503 adults who were just about evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Since the start of the year, gasoline prices have risen 17% and at $3.84 on Monday, are only a touch below the all-time record of $4.11 from July 2008.  Some polls suggest that rocketing gas prices have eroded President Obama’s approval rating, just as the burgeoning economy recovery started to bolster it.

Gasoline prices are dependent mostly on the price of crude oil, a global benchmark that also jumped about 17% since the start of the year. The most recent increases have come as a result of market jitters about possible conflict between Iran and Israel over the Iranian nuclear program. The closure of three major refineries on the U.S. East Coast has also contributed to higher prices.

The causes of high gasoline prices have failed to register with most Americans, however, who hold their politicians accountable for the jarring totals when they fill their tanks.  The supposition that more state-sanctioned oil drilling at home could drive down gasoline prices seems to be behind the new poll data.

The survey showed that even in the face of such high prices, a majority of Americans, 52%, thinks that developing alternative energy sources should be more of a priority than nurturing fossil fuels.  But that majority has shrunk from a year ago, when 63% favored a push for alternative energy.

The survey also probed public awareness and approval of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial, increasingly common procedure that involves high-pressure injection of water and sand laced with chemicals into shale formations to shatter rock and unlock reservoirs of oil and natural gas. Fracking’s backers contend that it is a safe method that allows the development of domestic resources and creates jobs. Its opponents contend that it can lead to contamination of surface and underground water, and to a range of associated problems, from air pollution to earthquakes.

As contentious as fracking has become in communities affected by it, like the Northeast, relatively few Americans know about it, the poll showed. Only 26% of the survey’s respondents said they had heard a lot about fracking and 37% said they had heard a little. Of those with some knowledge of the issue, 52% said they favored it and 35% opposed it. Men and women were on opposite sides of the issue. A majority of men, 61%, backed fracking, while a plurality of women, 41%, opposed it.

Republicans and the White House spend nearly every day trading allegations of who is to blame for the high gas prices. This week, President Obama embarked on an energy tour of sorts, traveling to Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ohio to highlight domestic energy projects.

Still, the energy policies with the greatest support seem to back many of the administration’s biggest priorities, with boosting vehicle fuel efficiency, a signature Obama effort, leading the pack.

The poll showed that greatest support for widening fossil fuel development came from men, Westerners and conservatives.

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