Americans Divided on Drilling, In More Ways Than One

VCU survey suggests we don't know what to think

By Sharon Donnell
|  Thursday, May 27, 2010  |  Updated 9:03 PM EDT
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Hold on, Virginia! Don't Drill, Baby


Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pushes a rake through washed up oil and absorbent material as he tours a land bridge built by the Louisiana National Guard to hold back oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Grand Isle, La., Friday, May 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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Hold on, Virginia! Don't Drill, Baby

A plan to pay for Virginia roads improvements through coastal oil exploration is now on hold.
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President Barack Obama’s decision to extend the moratorium on new deepwater oil drilling permits and cancel the leases for offshore drilling in Virginia -- just months after announcing he is in favor of additional drilling -- is a contradiction that appears to mirror the inner conflict of many Americans.

Of course, a deadly explosion that killed 11 Americans at an oil rig once considered a flagship for safety standards, followed by five weeks of watching millions of barrels of oil spew into a once-scenic waterway, ultimately threatening to destroy entire ecosystems and foul thousands of miles of U.S. coastline -- well, that’s got to affect public opinion.

And yet, not as much as one might think, according to the new VCU Life Sciences Survey from Virginia Commonwealth University. The nationwide telephone survey was planned long before the Gulf spill, but was conducted May 12-18, after Americans had been watching the spill and efforts to contain it evolve for several weeks.

When asked specifically about the risk and benefit tradeoffs of offshore drilling, a 51 percent majority said the environmental risks outweigh the benefits. Thirty-five percent thought the benefits outweigh the environmental risks. The rest were undecided.

The inner conflict becomes apparent in the results of the next question. Respondents were asked whether they support or oppose increased offshore oil drilling. Forty-five percent supported it, and 44 percent opposed it.

If a majority of Americans believe the environmental risks outweigh the benefits of drilling, why would a slight plurality also support increased drilling?

“The answer is that people are not wholly consistent,” said survey director Cary Funk, an associate professor at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “These are two different answers to two different questions.”

What is apparent, Funk says, is “there is a clear divide in terms of increasing offshore drilling.”

The public divide appears to begin within.

Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said there is room for Atlantic oil and gas drilling, but only after systems are in place
to a disasters like the one off the Louisiana Coast, according to the Associated Press.

McDonnell spoke in his monthly radio show on Richmond's WRVA radio as Obama planned to announce his moratorium on
deepwater drilling off Virginia's coast and elsewhere. 

The governor said he believes drilling can be done safely and that it is possible to eventually issue offshore leases for natural
gas drilling alone.

While Atlantic oil exploration won't begin before McDonnell leaves office in 2014, he said he would not hesitate to summon the
National Guard if faced with an ecological disaster like Louisiana's.

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