The spill doesn’t change everything

It may be natural to assume that one of the things that will come out of the Gulf oil spill is a swing in US opinion, away from oil exploration, and towards less polluting sources. But the polls are surprisingly undramatic on the subject. Overall, there appears be less growth than might be expected in US public opposition to offshore drilling

In terms of the current level of support for offshore drilling the US, two different polls conducted in May (i.e. after the spill) show satisfyingly similar numbers. According to Angus Reid, 57% support “drilling for oil and gas in the coastal areas around the United States”. A poll by Public Policy Polling, found 55% support “drilling for oil off the American coastline”. A further 10% and 15% are undecided in the respective polls.

Whether this shows any change in attitudes from before the spill is less clear. I’m yet to find a national US poll that asked a comparable question (i.e. support for any offshore drilling) before April. A Gallup poll in May ’08 showed 57% supporting an expansion of drilling into US coastal and wilderness areas that were then off-limits.  We might conclude that if 57% wanted an expansion of drilling two years ago, and now the same proportion would support any drilling, support must have fallen at least a little.

Unexpectedly, the best answer for confirming this appears to come from Fox News. As luck would have it, they polled on offshore drilling two weeks before the crisis started, and have repeated the same question twice since then: “Do you favor or oppose increasing offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. coastal areas?”. The results are clear – a drop, but not a haemorrhage, in support for drilling:

(In terms of the credibility of a Fox News poll – it was conducted by an agency called Opinion Dynamics. I don’t know anything about them, but the great Nate Silver seems ok-ish with them, so that’s good enough for me)

Interestingly, responses to this issue seem very much subject to how the question is framed. Later in the Angus Reid poll, respondents were asked whether they agree that “Offshore drilling is necessary to curb America’s reliance on foreign oil”. The result was 65% agreeing, and 23% disagreeing – compared with 57%  / 33% when the energy security argument wasn’t used.

The conclusion I take from this is that no-one should assume that the spill has conclusively made any argument against further offshore drilling. In the US – the only place so far directly affected by the spill – a majority still want to continue (and even increase) offshore drilling. When the energy security argument is added, this number increases further.

  1. Neil Hughes says:

    Interesting. It seems major crises don’t have the effect you would expect. I’m thinking also of the financial crisis, since which we’ve funnelled more to the bankers, CEOs and bonus vacuums straight out of the taxpayer’s pockets when many people thought the crisis would lead to a rethink of the financial system entirely.

    Where’s a good social pyschologist when you need one?

    Incidentally, Nate released his v4.0 of pollster rankings yesterday with a radically better model and about 4 times the data ( Opinion Dynamics rank just-above-average in that though so your poll still has credibility!

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