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Americans Choose the Environment Over Energy Development

Americans Choose the Environment Over Energy Development

Story Highlights

  • As gas prices fall, 49% say prefer environmental protection
  • 39% say production of U.S. energy supplies is more important
  • Democrats more likely than Republicans to prioritize environment

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- About half of Americans (49%) say that protection of environment should be given priority, even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies, virtually unchanged from their sentiment last year. Fewer than four in 10 (39%) prioritize the development of U.S. energy supplies even if the environment suffers to some extent.

Energy Production vs. Environmental Protection

These results are based on Gallup's 2015 Environment poll, conducted March 5-8. Another 11% of Americans had no opinion or could not choose between prioritizing energy or the environment.

The perceived trade-off between protecting the environment at the expense of accessing new energy sources has generated a great deal of debate in America for some time. The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil through the U.S. to refineries near the Gulf Coast, is only the latest example. Meanwhile many ongoing controversies -- such as drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a fight that has been raging for decades, and proposed new rules limiting coal and oil-fired utility plant emissions -- continue to flare partisan tempers with no mutually accepted resolution in sight.

Even as the plurality of Americans prefer environmental protection over development of U.S. energy supplies, the production of vital U.S. energy sources such as crude oil and liquid natural gas may this year hit a peak not observed since the 1970s, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts. The oil boom has likely contributed to the general fall in average gas price in the U.S., which currently stands at its lowest level since December 2010.

Perhaps because of lower gas prices, this year's findings suggest that Americans have returned to their default position of picking environmental protection over energy development. Since 2001, when Gallup first began asking this question, and until March 2008 -- just before the U.S. financial crisis -- Americans generally favored environmental protection, and often by substantial margins. From 2009 until 2013, as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the plurality of Americans often favored energy production. However, during that time period, in May 2010, as a damaged drilling rig leaked oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, Americans strongly favored environmental protection.

Democrats More Likely Than Republicans to Favor Environmental Protection

As in previous years, Democrats strongly prioritize environmental protection (72%) over developing energy supplies (18%). Republicans are a near mirror image, with 27% prioritizing protection of the environment and 62% wanting instead to develop energy supplies. Independents are similar to the overall population, with 48% opting for environmental protection and 39% siding with energy development.

Environment vs. Energy Trade-Off, by Party Identification

Bottom Line

For the second year in a row, Americans are leaning more heavily in favor of protecting the environment than in developing energy supplies. President Barack Obama stepped into this debate by recently vetoing legislation authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, citing among several factors for his veto, environmental concerns. A majority of Americans say Obama is doing a "good job" of protecting the nation's environment, suggesting this is an area of strength for the president.

But even as a plurality of Americans favor environmental protection over energy development, U.S. oil production is set to hit a 45-year high, benefitting many Americans in the form of lower gas prices. The process credited for much of this domestic oil production, hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is itself controversial, with just as many Americans favoring as opposing it. Generally, though, Gallup has seen a modest increase in economic confidence as gas prices have fallen, suggesting Americans are feeling real benefits from the drop in the cost of a tank of gas. But should gas prices increase substantially, Americans' feelings on this issue could change.

Historical data for these questions may be found in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 5-8, 2015, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,025 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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