Drill, baby, drill!?

You might think rising gasoline prices at a time of flat demand and surging domestic oil production would convince Americans that we need to find alternatives to oil. 

But no.

A new survey shows the public increasingly tilting toward doubling down on oil, on the apparent assumption that if the United States just produces even more, all our $2.50-a-gallon dreams will come true.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted this month found 52 percent of Americans consider developing alternative energy a more important priority than expanding domestic fossil fuel exploration (coal, oil, natural gas), down from 63 percent a year ago.

The report also found that nuclear power has regained a bit of the support it lost after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last March, with support for further development climbing from 39 percent to 44 percent. Still, a plurality of 49 percent of those surveyed remain opposed.

BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010 also made a small impact on public opinion—until the public forgot about it a couple of years later. According to poll, which was was based on a survey of 1,503 adults, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) now support offshore drilling, around the same percentage as before the spill. As oil was gushing from the pipeline, support had dropped to 44 percent, a figure that increased to 57 percent by 2011.

It’s unclear how directly public opinion will impact the nation’s energy policy, especially given the sharp partisan divide on the issue. In March 2011, Republicans were nearly evenly split on whether more renewables or expanded drilling should be the country’s highest energy priority. But now just 33 percent of Republicans see renewables as the top priority. Unsurprisingly, the breakdown comes down the other way for Democrats.

A particularly divisive issue is hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas, in which pressurized fluids are used to unlock what by most accounts is an abundant U.S. resource that could provide energy for several decades. The poll found that 73 percent of Republicans who have heard at least a little about fracking support the process, compared to just 33 percent of Democrats.

Even among Democrats there is debate, with 39 percent of conservative-to-moderate Democrats supporting fracking (with 43 percent opposed) and only 26 percent of liberal Democrats supporting it (with 64 percent opposed).

If public opinion has a major impact on state and national energy policies, natural gas production could continue to flourish and might even crowd out some renewable energy development. Supporters tout natural gas as capable of producing reliable baseload power with a fraction of the dangerous emissions that coal-fired power plants produce and without the dangerous spent fuel cells that nuclear power produces.

And in that sense, natural gas could provide a bridge to affordable and plentiful truly clean energy sources, a concept that some environmental groups have flirted with and that the Obama administration seems to have embraced. The danger, though, could be that the country abandons long-term planning in favor of yet another fossil fuel, essentially repeating the mistakes of the past.

Pew said its report was based on telephone interviews conducted March 7-11, 2012, and had a margin of error of 3 percent for the total sample, up to 6 percent for the subgroups.

Shifra Mincer, EarthTechling