Survey: Waning Support for Alternative Energy Among Westerners

Meanwhile, support for mining and drilling has gone up

Skytruth

Wells stretch to the horizon in a Wyoming gas field. A recent Pew survey found increased support in the West for expanded gas and oil drilling.

As gas prices surge, support is waning for alternative energy sources, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center released last week. The decline has been particularly pronounced in the western U.S., a region characterized in previous surveys by strong support for alternative energy.

Ebbing enthusiasm for alternatives, according to the survey, is coupled with greater support for “traditional” gas and oil development. In a survey last year conducted by Pew, 73% of Western respondents said they supported increased development of alternative energy, while only 19% were in support of increased development of traditional sources such as oil, gas and coal.

Fast-forward a year. With the price of gas nationwide averaging close to $4 per gallon – up nearly 9% from the same period last year – the percentage of respondents in support of alternatives declined by 20 percentage points, whereas support for expanding mining and drilling jumped by 20 points, to 39%.

Memory of BP’s massive Macondo spill – which spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over five months – seems to have faded, with about two-out-of-three respondents saying they support increased offshore drilling in U.S. waters – slightly higher than in February 2010, two months before the BP spill.

The survey also indicates growing support in the West for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial method of gas and oil production in which water and other chemicals are injected into the earth at high pressure, in order to release hydrocarbons from surrounding rock formations.

It’s not clear how well the trends illustrated in the survey match the opinions of Californians. A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California conducted last year, for example, found that more than three-quarters of respondents statewide favored a policy requiring one-third of the state’s energy portfolio to come from renewable sources by 2020. “We have seen very consistent support for renewable energy in California,” said Sonja Petek, a survey project manager for the PPIC.

Petek said there was a similar spike in support for offshore drilling in California a few years back, as gas prices jumped in the run-up to the 2008 election. Unlike this month’s Pew survey, however, increased support for drilling was not met with a corresponding decline in support for auto fuel efficiency standards or renewables, which remained strong (virtually unchanged at 88% and 83%, respectively). “And in spite of the ten-point increase,” said Petek, “it was not clear that Californians thought more drilling would significantly reduce gas prices.”

Like this month’s Pew survey, last year’s PPIC report showed that views on gas and oil development were sharply divided along partisan lines, with Republicans twice as likely as Democrats to support increased drilling off the California coast.