Just a quarter of Americans back expanding offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill, and most fault federal regulators for the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Before the spill, the Obama administration lifted the moratorium on drilling in U.S. coastal waters as a way to address the country's energy needs. But most Americans now want fewer offshore wells (31 percent) or the amount kept at current levels (41 percent).
Perhaps as a consequence of the spill, public support for oil and gas drilling in general is also significantly lower than it was a year ago. And as Americans have become increasingly skeptical about such exploration, some elected representatives are now questioning what the government is doing in order to ensure energy exploration can take place safely offshore.
On Wednesday morning during a Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing, the panel's chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said the Gulf of Mexico oil spill underscores a failure on the part of both BP and the federal government.
"It's clear that prior to the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig neither the companies involved nor the government adequately appreciated or prepared for the risks involved in a deepwater drilling operation of this type," Bingaman said. "The results of that failure to properly assess and prepare for risks have been disastrous. Lives have been lost. The livelihood and way of life of many Gulf residents have been interrupted and in some cases destroyed. The environmental damage has been immense."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), another panel member, questioned Interior Secretary Ken Salazar why his department had let offshore drilling be guided by "a philosophy that basically said, step back and let industry police itself, even if there are tremendous risks to the American public."
The new Post-ABC poll reveals a widespread perception that poor federal regulation was at fault in the Gulf spill. Some 63 percent point a finger at inadequate enforcement of current regulations, and 55 percent see an overall weak regulatory structure. Even more, 73 percent, blame BP and its drilling partners for the accident. And the same number now call the spill a major environmental disaster.
In an interview Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-WVa.) said it sometimes "takes a tragedy of these proportions" to give the American public and their elected representative the political will to impose stricter federal rules on energy exploration.
"They want to see professional, highly-trained inspectors that are not just pushing paper and rubber-stamping what the industry gives them," Rahall said of Americans. "They need to ask the tough questions and be truly concerned about holding these companies accountable."
The broad concern about government inaction directly relates to public support for new drilling: Those who see a weak regulatory structure as a reason for the spill are about twice as likely to want to curb offshore drilling than are those who don't see the need for stricter federal controls.
Another challenge for the administration as the leak continues is that there's a growing sense that it represents a big problem with offshore drilling itself. About half, 49 percent, now see the Gulf spill as part of a broader problem with such drilling; in a CBS News poll a month ago, a majority of Americans said they thought it was more aptly described as "an isolated incident." Support for drilling in general has slipped from 64 percent last August to 52 percent now.
Even as Salazar highlighted the steps the administration has taken to tighten safety rules for drilling off the Outer Continental Shelf, such as rules announced Tuesday that will require stricter inspections of a well's blowout preventer and casings, Gulf Coast officials insisted Salazar had gone too far in halting drilling.
"This could be devastating to our state, and to the Gulf Coast," asked Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), warning 330,000 Louisiana jobs are at stake due to the temporary drilling moratorium. "I am asking: can you give any time certain, can you give any confidence that we can keep our people at work, that could get our people back to work?"
"We have put the pause button until we can have a sense of safety that this can never happen again," Salazar replied.
When asked a similar question by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who suggested "the pause button" may have become "the stop button," Salazar answered that when it came to predicting when deep water drilling will resume, "Senator Barrasso, the frank answer to that question is I don't know today."
The Post-ABC poll was conducted June 3 to 6, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. Interviews were conducted on conventional and cellular telephone, and the results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.