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Public Support for Oil Drilling in the Mid-Atlantic

President Obama surprised more than a few people with his announcement yesterday to allow oil drilling in coastal waters. The northwestern boundary of the Atlantic Ocean exploration area is reportedly within 10 miles of Cape May, New Jersey. So it’s not surprising that Garden State political leaders have an opinion on this. What may be more surprising is that their opinion is nearly universally opposed – both Democrats and Republicans alike, including Governor Christie.

But how does the public feel about it? Especially among those who actually live along the coast? A study recently conducted by the Polling Institute and the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University provides some answers.

But, let’s take a look at the national picture first. A Pew Research Center poll in April 2009 found that 68% of Americans favor allowing more offshore drilling in U.S. waters, with just 27% opposed. This is similar to the 65% support registered by a Public Agenda poll that same month and up slightly from the 62% a national Quinnipiac poll found in August 2008. [Note: each poll used slightly different wording, but the findings are very similar.]

There are also a few state polls worth looking at. The Public Policy Institute of California has been polling on this issue for a number of years. When Californians were asked in February 2006 about allowing more drilling off their own state’s coast, only 31% were in support, compared to 64% who were opposed. That opinion shifted a little by July that same year, when support rose to 42% and opposition dropped to a bare majority of 51%. This was more in line with prior polls, where opposition was tabbed at 53% (2005), 50% (2004), and 54% (2003). PPIC’s next poll reading in July 2007 found that opinions remained stable at 41% for to 52% against.

But just one year later, that number flipped. PPIC’s July 2008 poll registered 51% majority support for drilling off the California coast, compared to 43% who opposed it. After at least five years of steady majority opposition, most Californians were in favor of drilling for oil off their own coast!

Recent polling in other coastal states reveals that most residents are in favor of drilling off their own shores. For example, a March 2009 Elon University poll of North Carolina residents found the 66% supported drilling off the Tar Heel State’s coast, compared to just 29% opposed.

In New Jersey, a Monmouth University/Gannett Poll from August 2008 found that 56% of Garden State residents supported drilling off their own coast, with 36% opposed. As a point of comparison, this result was not markedly different from the 59% of New Jerseyans who favored drilling off of Virginia’s coast and 51% who favored drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge.

Basically, there seems to have been a shift in public opinion in favor of offshore drilling driven by the fuel price “bubble” two years ago. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any NIMBY effect at the state level. But is that still the case when you examine the views of those who live right on the coastline?

In 2007, Monmouth University conducted a unique survey of Mid-Atlantic coastal residents – i.e. people living in census tracts along the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Virginia. More than 8-in-10 of the study sample lived within one mile of the beach and more than 6-in-10 lived within a few blocks of the Atlantic’s waters. We repeated the study in April 2009, including a question about offshore drilling (see pages 19-20 of the report).

In the 2007 survey, we found that 33% of residents living in Mid-Atlantic coastal communities supported “drilling for oil or gas in the ocean off the Atlantic coast,” while 40% opposed it. Another 27% registered no opinion (which was an explicit choice in the survey question). By 2009, some of that “no opinion” had shifted to support – specifically, 46% of these coastal residents favored offshore drilling two years later, compared to 37% who were opposed and 16% with no opinion.

[It’s also worth noting that support for placing energy producing windmills off these residents’ coastlines also increased by about 10 points between 2007 and 2009 –57% support if the turbines are visible from the shore and 82% support if the wind farms are placed beyond the horizon.]

There are some interesting state-level differences in support for offshore drilling in the more recent poll. New York coastal residents (i.e. people who live along the south shore of Long Island) were the least supportive of offshore drilling – only 37% supported it compared to 44% opposed. Maryland residents (which were basically from the resort town of Ocean City) were most in favor, by a 65% to 22% margin. A majority of coastal residents in both Delaware (52% to 33%) and New Jersey (51% to 36%) also favored offshore drilling, while opinion was more divided in Virginia (42% to 34%).*

So, on the question of offshore drilling, it appears that the opinions of New Jersey’s political leaders are not entirely in line with the opinions of most Garden State residents, including those who live in the state’s coastal communities.

[*Note: Due to different sample sizes, the margin of sampling error for results from New York and New Jersey is +/-5.5%, for Virginia is +/-6.5%, and for Delaware and Maryland is +/-9.5%.]