The FINANCIAL -- Slightly more Americans now oppose (53%) rather than favor (46%) opening up land owned by the federal government for oil exploration. In prior years, a majority favored the proposal, including 65% in 2012.
The results are based on Gallup's annual Environment poll, which explores Americans' opinions on issues involving energy production and environmental consumption. The federal government currently allows oil exploration on a limited amount of land that it owns, but many political leaders and energy production advocates have called for an expansion of federal lands open to energy exploration.
When Gallup first asked about opening federal lands for oil exploration using this question wording in March 2012, gas prices were much higher than they are today. At that time, a gallon of gasoline averaged $3.91, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Two years later, gas prices had fallen but were still relatively high, averaging $3.61. By November 2014, gas prices had fallen below $3; the most recent estimates, from February 2017, show gas averaging $2.42 a gallon.
Declining gas prices are likely a key reason Americans' concerns about energy have waned in recent years. In 2012, 48% said they worried "a great deal" about the availability and affordability of energy, tied for the high in Gallup's 17-year trend. Currently, 27% worry a great deal, tied for the low.
As such, Americans may not see a compelling need to explore for oil on land that is currently off-limits to energy producers. That is consistent with Americans' prioritizing protection of the environment over developing new energy supplies, according to Gallup.
Support for Exploration on Federal Lands Down Among All Key Subgroups
Since 2012, all key U.S. subgroups show significant declines in the percentage in favor of opening federal lands for oil exploration. Still, differences exist between certain groups, especially by partisanship. Currently, 73% of Republicans -- versus 27% of Democrats -- favor oil exploration on federally owned lands. While there was also a large partisan gap in 2012, it was not as wide as it is today, given that 86% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats then favored such oil exploration.
In addition to party, there are sharp differences by age, with 58% of senior citizens but only 28% of young adults now in favor of allowing oil exploration on federal lands.
Americans' orientation to environmental causes is also strongly related to their views of oil exploration on federal lands. Just 31% of those who describe themselves as "active in" or "sympathetic to" the environmental movement support opening federal lands for oil exploration, compared with 70% of those who say they are "neutral" or "unsympathetic" to the environmental movement. Support for opening federal lands to oil exploration among those who are active or sympathetic has declined 23 percentage points since 2012, compared with a much smaller nine-point decline among those who are neutral or unsympathetic.
Americans' support for opening federally owned lands for oil exploration has declined significantly in recent years, likely in response to lower gasoline prices. Last year, Gallup reported similar declines in public support for nuclear energy and fracking. Americans may not see the need for taking environmental or other risks to produce energy when prices are low, and energy is widely available.
President Donald Trump has advocated increased oil exploration on federal lands and is looking to roll back regulations put in place by the Obama administration. Barack Obama's environmental policies were a factor in the reduction of oil production on federal lands for most of his presidency, at a time when production on nonfederal lands was increasing sharply.
But even if Trump relaxes some of the restrictions, oil companies may opt not to invest the money needed to develop new oil sources when oil is cheap and plentiful. They are more likely to make such investments when oil prices are higher and the supply is scarce.
Trump's plans to expand energy exploration on federal lands aligned with U.S. opinion five years ago, but are out of sync with the public's views today. However, his policies on oil exploration are in line with Republicans' views today. With the president getting limited support outside his party, keeping the GOP constituency happy may be more important to accomplishing his goals as president than appealing to those outside his base.