Half of Public Favors the Environment Over Growth

by Dennis Jacobe, Chief Economist

Six in 10 Americans favor more conservation over more energy production

PRINCETON, NJ -- Although a recession is looming, Americans continue to favor protecting the environment even at the risk of curbing economic growth in a new Gallup Poll, conducted March 6-9.

Protecting the Environment Over Energy Production

The price of a gallon of regular gas nationwide hit $3.26 this week -- up 65 cents from a year ago. Given such record prices and the general perception that the U.S. economy is experiencing a recession, it is somewhat surprising that Americans continue to say (by a seven percentage-point margin, 49% to 42%) protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Still, this is down from the 18-point margin of a year ago, when 55% said they would prioritize the environment over economic growth. Further, the 49% of Americans currently favoring the environment over growth is only two points above the historical low over the past couple of decades.

Similarly, 50% of Americans say protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies such as oil, gas, and coal that the United States produces, while 41% hold the reverse position, saying energy production should be the priority. However, this 9-point margin is down from 24 points last year, when Americans favored prioritizing the environment by 58% to 34%. In this same vein, just over half of Americans continue to oppose opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration.

Americans Favor More Energy Conservation

Ninety-five percent of Americans believe the current U.S. energy situation is very (46%) or fairly serious (49%). Further, 62% think the United States is likely to face a critical energy shortage during the next five years.

What approach do Americans think the United States should follow right now to solve the nation's energy problems? By a margin of 61% to 29%, Americans favor emphasizing more consumer conservation of existing energy supplies, rather than emphasizing the production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies. This is down from the 64% to 26% margin of a year ago. Still, despite their fears of a future energy shortage and in the face of record gas prices, Americans continue to favor a conservation approach by a margin similar to that seen in most Gallup Polls since 2001.

Americans May Get Their Conservation Wish

Gallup's polling shows why it has been so difficult for the United States to adopt an effective new energy policy. The public is almost equally divided between prioritizing the environment and prioritizing economic growth or developing new energy supplies. Given such a split in public opinion, it should not be surprising that the political response has been inaction, as politicians attempt to avoid alienating either side of the energy-versus-environment debate.

On the other hand, many Americans seem to agree that the best approach right now is increased energy conservation. These Americans are likely to get their wish because surging energy prices are a very effective "free market" way to encourage energy conservation. For example, at an emergency meeting last week, the South Korean army decided that it would ask its soldiers to make do with one bath a week in order to conserve energy and reduce its fuel use because of soaring energy costs. Perhaps energy prices won't rise so much that U.S. consumers are forced to take similarly drastic actions to conserve energy in the months ahead.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 6-9, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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