WASHINGTON — High gasoline prices have dramatically changed Americans' views on energy and the environment, with more people now viewing oil drilling and new power plants as a greater priority than energy conservation, according to a new survey.
The poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center shows nearly half of those surveyed — or 47 percent — now rate energy exploration, drilling and building new power plants as the top priority, compared with 35 percent who believed that five months earlier.
The Pew poll, conducted in late June, showed the number of people who consider energy conservation as more important declined by 10 percentage points since February from a clear majority to 45 percent. People are now about evenly split on which is more important.
The number of people who said they considered increasing energy supplies more important than protecting the environment increased from 54 percent in February to 60 percent and the number of people who favor oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge also increased.
"This shows the real impact of higher gas prices on the public," said Carroll Doherty, associate director for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which commissioned the telephone survey of 2,004 adults from June 18 to June 29. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, slightly larger for subgroups.
Since February, gasoline prices have soared from just over $3 to a national average of $4.08 a gallon, according to the Energy Department.
Changes across demographics
Among the survey's most astounding findings is the dramatic increase in a span of five months in the support for energy exploration and production among groups that have traditionally championed conservation as being the answer to the country's energy problems.
For example, the percentage of liberals who said expanding energy exploration was their most important priority doubled from 22 percent in February to 45 percent; increased by 19 points to 50 percent among independents; and by 18 points to 46 percent among women.
Young people, who in the past have overwhelmingly leaned toward conservation, saw the most dramatic shift. Just over half of the people from 18 to 29 years of age saw expanding energy exploration more important, double the number in February.
The poll showed people remain sharply divided over oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is now off limits. But in the June survey the number of people favoring drilling there increased to 50 percent, compared to 42 percent last February. Those who opposed drilling fell from 50 percent to 43 percent.
The survey comes as Congress is in the midst of a bitter debate over how to respond to the country's energy problems and as the two major presidential candidates also are sharply divided on energy priorities.
McCain vs. Obama
GOP candidate John McCain has called for building more nuclear power plants and ending a blanket moratorium on drilling in 85 percent of the country's coastal waters. Advocates of that approach argue that opening new areas to drilling would send a signal to oil markets, and put pressure on prices to fall.
His rival, Democrat Barack Obama, has emphasized incentives for conservation and development of alternative domestic energy sources and opposes expanded offshore drilling. Backers of that approach argue that moving away from a fuel tied to international markets is the best long-term safety net against volatile prices.
The Pew poll, however, showed Republicans and Democrats moving closer together on the production vs. conservation dispute. The number of Democrats who said they saw increased production as the top priority jumped by 16 percentage points since February to 46 percent. Republicans holding that view declined from about half to 43 percent.
With the exception of the Arctic refuge, the poll did not address any specific energy proposals such as whether to lift drilling moratoria in some ocean waters, the pros and cons of nuclear energy, or the environmental impacts of coal burning power plants on global warming.
It sought to address general energy priorities, said Doherty.
Public frustration over high gas prices and a warming toward more energy production has surfaced elsewhere as well.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Web site calling on people to sign a petition to "drill here, drill now" has recorded more than 1.2 million hits.
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