Is Offshore Drilling Gaining in Public Acceptance?

Offshore oil drilling is at the center of an intensifying national debate over how the government should address the current energy crisis, and it's lately become a front-burner issue on the presidential campaign trail. Presumptive nominees Barack Obama and John McCain have been divided on the issue—Obama was against more drilling, McCain has lately come out in favor of it—but just today, Obama qualified his position, telling a Florida newspaper he'd be open to allowing limited offshore drilling if that's what it takes to pass a more comprehensive energy plan, including support for alternative energy and more fuel-efficient cars. Until recently, coastal states had taken a "not in my backyard" approach to offshore drilling. But that's beginning to change, now that gas prices are hovering at or above $4 per gallon. In Florida, 60 percent of voters now support drilling off their coasts. Perhaps more surprising, a majority in eco-conscious California is also willing to tap waters off the state's shorelines. Ever since the devastating Unocal oil spill in the waters off Santa Barbara in 1969, there was a relatively unified opposition to new drilling in the state. But a just-released survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, shows a slim but surprising majority (51 percent) of Californians now favoring more offshore drilling, while 45 percent now oppose it.

The attitude shift among Californians was primarily caused by a surge in support for drilling among Republicans in the state. According to the survey, in which 2,504 adult residents were polled from July 8 to July 22, more than 77 percent of California's Republicans now support offshore drilling, up from 60 percent a year ago. Only 35 percent of Democrats approve of offshore drilling, but that's up from 29 percent a year ago. Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the PPIC and founder of the organization's Statewide Survey, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the latest results and their national political implications. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In a statewide field poll taken less than a month ago, 51 percent of Californians opposed offshore drilling, while 43 percent approved. Your survey numbers are virtually reversed and come just a few weeks later. To what do you attribute this dramatic shift?
Mark Baldassare:
The difference is in large part due to the state's Republicans, who've become more favorably disposed to offshore drilling. We saw a 17 point increase in support among Republicans over our survey last year, and a 6 point increase among Democrats.

Why have so many Republicans made the switch?
It's become a lot more politically acceptable. In recent months, both the president and the Republican nominee have come out in favor of expanding offshore drilling. The other factor has to be that rising gas prices have made Californians more inclined to think about expanding the energy supply.

In addition to President Bush and Senator McCain, conservative pundits have in the last few weeks criticized Senator Obama for opposing offshore drilling, saying it's an example of his energy-policy inertia. Their argument is that at least Senator McCain is doing something. How big an influence do you think these media pundits have had in the shift in mood among Californians?
Yes, in the last few months, people have heard not just Republican political leadership but people in the media, who've raised questions about whether we are doing all we can to expand our domestic oil supply. All of this has made it more acceptable to say that you support offshore drilling, because it's in line with the national party leaders. A year ago, people may have been thinking it, but you weren't hearing it.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has consistently opposed offshore drilling. Is it conceivable that he'll look at the numbers in this survey, particularly in his party, and rethink his position?
I'd be surprised if a poll that finds voters still sharply divided on an issue would cause the governor to change his position. Schwarzenegger is looking for support of all Californians, and this is a topic over which Californians are still clearly divided. It's a very slim majority, which suggests it is a very polarizing issue. Right now the governor is looking to take care of the budget situation, improve the economy and put out the fires in his state.

Ever since the Santa Barbara oil spill nearly 40 years ago, Californians have consistently opposed putting more drills off their coast. Is this survey a knee-jerk reaction to the politics of the day and high gas prices, or are we seeing a real and lasting shift in state residents' attitudes toward offshore drilling?
The numbers may slip back and forth depending on the cost of gas and what people hear from leadership, but we're probably in a period of time where this issue will continue to divide California. And of course the debate will continue, and questions remain about drilling's environmental impact.

Do you think this survey will prompt more people on both sides of the issue to act?
I think that the discussions about offshore drilling on the national scene are what is prompting people on both sides of this issue to act. Our survey reflects that heated dialogue between Republicans and Democrats. It's the national discussion that is already taking place more than the survey results—from the president vs. Congress or McCain vs. Obama, it has raised awareness about this issue and raised questions about the extent to which we should expand domestic energy sources.

I interviewed Santa Barbara's mayor just three weeks ago, and at that time she was confident that Republicans in her city were still widely opposed to more offshore drilling. What did your survey find among Santa Barbara Republicans?
We didn't break it down to a city level. This has always been described as a coastal issue, with the coastal residents always against and inland folks always in favor. But I have to say that while the majority of Bay Area responses were opposed, if you look at Orange County and San Diego County, a majority in both were in favor of more drilling. So you can't assume that Republicans who live on the coast are still against offshore drilling. You have to come back to the fact that with this heated national debate and a very close presidential race, this will result in more people lining up their views with the candidates they support.

Offshore drilling has become an issue in the presidential race. Do you suspect Senator McCain will point to your survey results in his energy speeches in the coming days and weeks?
I've not heard him comment on it so far. I've never felt that his speeches about energy were directed at California; it's a Blue State. His energy policies are more directed toward the heartland.

But couldn't he make an effective argument for offshore drilling by citing your survey numbers and saying, "Hey, even Californians back the idea now"?
Well, as someone who's followed public opinion polls for two decades, I personally don't take much comfort from the fact that 51 percent support something. If you factor in the margin of error alone [plus or minus 2 percent], it might not even be a majority. It's a divisive and volatile issue.

In addition to the increased support for offshore drilling, the survey also finds that 83 percent of Californians still support federal funding for research on renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydrogen. Does this suggest California voters are confused and conflicted?
No, I think they're just looking for solutions everywhere. They strongly support federal efforts to increase fuel efficiency. They are looking for alternative, renewable energy, and the survey shows a 7 percent increase in support for nuclear power, as well as for more oil drilling. The profile emerging from these findings is that Californians are deeply worried about where we're headed in terms of energy; they've been hit hard in the pocketbook and are looking for solutions.

What has been the reaction so far to your survey numbers?
Everyone is surprised with the findings … But as we try to understand the economic and political context of these numbers, I keep reminding people that offshore drilling specifically, and energy and the environment more generally, are topics that Californians are far from settled on. Californians are very divided and are searching for answers.