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Oil Spill Alters Views on Environmental Protection

Oil Spill Alters Views on Environmental Protection

PRINCETON, NJ -- Between March and today, with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill intervening, Americans' preferences for prioritizing between environmental protection and energy production have shifted from a somewhat pro-energy stance to an even stronger pro-environment stance.

Recent Trend: Higher Priority for Energy Production or Environmental Protection

The new results are based on a May 24-25 USA Today/Gallup poll. In March, by 50% to 43%, Americans said it was more important to develop U.S. energy supplies than to protect the environment, continuing a trend in the direction of energy production seen since 2007. Now, the majority favor environmental protection, by 55% to 39% -- the second-largest percentage (behind the 58% in 2007) favoring the environment in the 10-year history of the question.

Democrats had already put more emphasis on environmental protection than on energy production in March, but that position has gained strength among Democrats today. Independents' views have flipped from a majority pro-energy stance in March to a majority pro-environment one today. In contrast, Republicans' opinions have not changed since the oil spill occurred; they continue to prioritize energy production over environmental protection by a 2-to-1 margin.

Changes in Priority to Environmental Protection vs. Energy Development, by Political Party

Americans' shift toward a more pro-environment point of view is also evident in a separate trade-off question, which pits environmental protection against economic growth. After the oil spill, the balance of opinion tips toward the environment by seven points, 50% to 43%. Just over two months ago, Americans favored economic growth by a 15-point margin, 53% to 38%.

Recent Trend: Higher Priority for Economic Development or Environmental Protection

These shifts on the environment vs. economy trade-off are more pronounced among Democrats and independents, but on this question even Republicans have shown slight movement in the direction of the environment.

Changes in Priority of Environmental Protection vs. Economic Development, by Political Party

Bottom Line

The recent oil spill has spurred a significant shift in Americans' environmental attitudes. For the last few years, Americans' environmental concerns declined as the public placed a higher priority on pocketbook concerns like the economy and energy, likely due to the poor U.S. economy. However, in just two months' time, that trend has reversed, and the pro-environment position has regained the strength it showed for most of the last decade.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews conducted May 24-25, 2010, with a random sample of 1,049 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using a random-digit-dial sampling technique.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error is ±4 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). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted on the basis of gender, age, race, education, region and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.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.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

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