By PETER FIMRITE
San Francisco Chronicle
September 18, 2008
If anything, the poll indicates voters in California, Oregon and Washington would like to yell out to those who will listen, "alternatives, sweetie, alternatives!"
The survey of 1,100 voters conducted by David Binder Research shows that although 50 percent of those polled in the three states would agree to more offshore oil drilling, their support is contingent on plans to protect the environment and develop renewable energy sources to minimize the need for oil.
"My immediate reaction was surprise at the extent to which Western voters were aligned on this issue," said Shanan Alper, an analyst for the research firm, based in San Francisco. "They know we can't keep relying on oil, and they know that drilling is not the answer. The overwhelming majority want us to move toward renewable energy."
The nation's energy future is one of the most incendiary issues facing the two candidates for president as Americans grapple with skyrocketing gasoline prices.
Republicans have recently dominated the debate, demanding more domestic drilling. Spurred on by polls showing a majority of Americans support the idea, delegates at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., chanted, "drill, baby, drill."
In exchange for allowing more drilling, House Democrats have proposed repealing some $18 billion in subsidies to oil companies so they can instead offer tax credits for renewable energy, but the GOP opposes such a plan.
The "black gold" rush has now moved into California, traditionally one of the country's biggest boosters of efforts to develop alternative energy. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 51 percent of the state's residents support oil drilling off the coast, a 10-point increase in a single year. It is the first time Californians have supported drilling in nearly three decades.
But the latest poll, commissioned by Oceana, an international environmental group dedicated to oceans and marine wildlife, shows that there is more to the drilling question than meets the eye. Although half of those surveyed strongly or somewhat supported offshore oil drilling, there was still considerable concern about the effect that drilling and the continued use of fossil fuels would have on the environment, especially in the Arctic.
Two-thirds of those polled were very or somewhat concerned about the risk of offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Seventy-two percent were very or somewhat concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice, and 71 percent expressed concern about ocean acidification.
Overall, 45 percent of voters in California, Oregon and Washington support drilling in the Arctic Ocean, compared to 41 percent who oppose it, according to the poll.
Most of those surveyed expressed a desire for a cautious, science-based approach to drilling. Support for oil exploration diminished when they were informed that it could take seven to 10 years for drilling to have any effect on gasoline prices. Sixty percent of voters felt more information is needed about the impacts of oil drilling.
"It was striking that support fell so quickly after providing them with just minimal information," Alper said. "Once voters start learning just a little bit about the issue, the majority end up opposing offshore oil drilling in the Arctic."
The majority of those polled supported development of fuel alternatives, and 56 percent said they would like to tax oil profits as part of a strategy to move toward cleaner, renewable energy sources.
"People are really struggling right now, yet still they are willing to take that step toward renewable energy," Alper said. "There is a great concern about global climate change, and people are very reluctant to place the environment in jeopardy. People aren't opposed to all drilling, but they want sound science."
The drilling debate has become ever more partisan, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referring to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as the "two oilmen in the White House," and calling their drilling proposal a hoax, even while conceding that some drilling might be acceptable.
Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana, said the latest poll shows that public acceptance of oil exploration as a tool for energy independence is more nuanced than drilling proponents are acknowledging.
"There is this big push to drill here, drill now, but people are much more thoughtful than proponents of offshore oil drilling are giving them credit for," Ayers said. "What people want is affordable energy, a healthy environment, and they want oil to be a bridge to affordable renewable energy. Americans are not ready to just turn the ocean over to Big Oil."
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