Tapping the Public View of Big Oil

This morning President Barack Obama met with administration officials and briefed reporters on the next steps in the three-week effort to stop the oil spill in the Gulf. In two new polls the president has less than majority support for his handling of the situation. Just 36% in a new Pew poll approve of the way he is responding. BP's ratings are worse. The pattern is the same in the new AP/GfK Roper poll.

Pollsters have been looking at public views of oil companies for more than 60 years. The earliest questions I've found are from polls taken in 1944 and 1946, when people were asked whether the government should own the oil companies. In both questions around 70% said it should not. In a poll taken by the Opinion Research Corp. several months after the Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill in January 1969, nearly two-thirds had a favorable view of the "oil and gasoline industry"; by 1971 opinion was more negative than positive.

Americans have become passive environmentalists. They care deeply, but they aren't actively engaged unless a crisis occurs.

In June 1973 83% of those surveyed by Gallup had heard the term "energy crisis." A Roper poll conducted in the fall of that year asked about things that could "help to prevent an energy crisis--some involving some risk according to the environmentalists, others involving no risk to the environment but requiring people to cut down on their use of energy." Sixty-nine percent said the U.S. should build a pipeline though Alaska so that oil can be brought into the country at a reasonable cost.

In another question 59% said the U.S. should increase offshore exploration for oil reserves under the ocean. In a December 1973 question when Gallup asked people to say in their own words who or what was responsible for the energy crisis, 25% volunteered the oil companies, but almost as many volunteered the government (20%) and the Nixon administration (19%). Sixteen percent said the public was responsible. In a 1976 Roper question 57% said the oil companies deserved major blame for the energy crisis. Still, Americans were opposed to government control. In a question that year from Cambridge Reports 25% favored nationalizing the oil companies, but 51% were opposed.

Between 1981 and 1997 Roper asked people their views about oil companies fairly regularly. Favorable views, never particularly high, dropped sharply after the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in 1989 and recovered a little in the 1990s. In a handful of questions this decade from other pollsters, only around three in 10 have had a positive view.

Americans have become passive environmentalists. They care deeply, but they aren't actively engaged unless a crisis occurs. Just a few days ago 55% told Pew that the oil spill was a major environmental disaster. Thirty-seven percent called it was a serious problem but not a disaster. In another question in the poll a bare majority (51%) said efforts to control the spill and prevent its spread would be successful, but 37% said they would not be. In a new CBS poll, 51% called the explosion and spill an isolated incident, while 35% said it was mostly an indication of a broader problem with offshore drilling.

Support has dropped for increased drilling for oil and gas in coastal areas. In the new Pew poll 54% were in favor, down from 67% in September 2008. In the CBS poll 46% favored allowing increased drilling off the coast, down from 62% in August 2008. In April 2010 70% told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics interviewers that they favor increasing offshore drilling. That's now 60%.

I doubt that the drop in support for drilling is a permanent one. In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 53% said that the potential benefits to the economy of oil drilling off the coasts outweigh the potential harm to the environment; 41% said the harm to the environment outweighs the economic benefits. President Obama said this morning that offshore drilling will continue to be one part of an overall energy strategy. But whatever happens, suspicion of oil companies and of the federal government isn't going to go away.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user tsuda/Creative Commons

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
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    Email: kbowman@aei.org
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