Friday, August 1, 2008

Slim majority supports offshore drilling

SACRAMENTO — As gas prices remain above $4 a gallon in most of the Bay Area, Californians are more open to the idea of offshore drilling for oil than they have been in the past.

A slim majority — 51 percent to 45 percent — approve of offshore drilling, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. It's the first time since the institute began asking the question in 2003 that more residents favor drilling than oppose it. A year ago, 41 percent favored drilling.

Still, the issue appears driven by partisan inclinations. More than three-quarters — 77 percent — of Republicans support offshore oil drilling, up from 60 percent a year ago. Only 35 percent of Democrats approve of drilling, but that's up, from 29 percent a year ago. Less than half of independents — 44 percent — are in favor, up from 33 percent last year.

"With oil drilling being a politicized issue this year, it's not surprising that the bulk of growth occurred among Republicans," said Sonja Petek, the project manager for the survey. "But, even more Democrats favor drilling. ... It's as though residents are looking for somebody to do something about gas prices."

Support for drilling is highest in the Inland Empire (56 percent), Central Valley (55 percent) and Orange/San Diego counties (54 percent), while residents in Los Angeles are split. Bay Area residents are least likely to support drilling, with 54 percent Advertisementopposed.

The survey of 2,504 adult residents from July 8 to 22 has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. It also found that a record-high number of Californians — 78 percent — expect bad economic times to continue; that gas prices are the top issue for the first time in the institute's surveys; that three-quarters of residents say increases in gas prices have caused economic hardships; and that 69 percent of residents say they've significantly cut back on their driving.

Oil drilling has been a flash point in the presidential campaign. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain, seeking ways to cut into Democrat Barack Obama's national lead in the polls, has seized on the issue.

McCain, who declared his support for offshore drilling during a visit earlier this month to California, jabbed at Obama in a recent TV ad for his opposition to drilling.

"Clearly, there's a growing sense of urgency on the issue of increasing energy supplies," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party. "McCain has the upper hand in the energy debate because nothing Obama has talked about would significantly reduce energy prices. If the U.S. embarks on a bold program of increased energy drilling, we'd see an immediate effect on market prices."

A Democratic party official called that claim a joke, saying the United States can't drill its way to lower energy prices. Congressional Democrats have accused oil companies of sitting on 68 million acres of federal lands that contain 80 percent of U.S. oil reserves but have not been developed for drilling.

"John McCain would be 80 years old before the first well could produce oil," said Bob Mulholland, the state Democratic Party's campaign adviser. "If there's any support for drilling, it's all hope. Most people are hoping for cheaper gas, and rightfully so. But it's not going to happen because they start drilling offshore."

Earlier this month, President Bush lifted the presidential ban on offshore drilling, but that won't take effect unless Congress lifts its ban. Congressional Republicans derided Democrats as the "drill-nothing" party after Democrats adjourned Wednesday for their August recess without taking up the GOP's American Energy Act legislation.

One Republican congressman has even produced a pledge to vote for increasing U.S. oil production, which 192 lawmakers — all but four are Republicans — have signed.

But Democrats say oil companies don't need more land to drill — on land or offshore.

The 68 million acres of unused land leased by oil companies, Democrats say, could produce an additional 4.8 million barrels of oil, nearly doubling current domestic oil production — and six times the estimated potential peak production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

  • Bush lifts presidential ban on U.S. offshore drilling
  • Democrats propose $10 billion tax hike on wealthy
  • Dems gain control in East Bay cities