When the Public Policy Institute of California came out last week with its most recent data on public support for offshore oil drilling, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and some name-calling among certain folks on the environmental left.
PPIC’s poll had found that for the second year in a row, a narrow majority of registered voters (51% in 2008 and 53% in 2009) said they favor allowing oil drilling off the California coast.
Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, for one, went nuts, attacking PPIC’s poll as worthless and biased, until the attorney general wannabe got hosed down and recalibrated his comments as a critique of the news media.
As we said then, Mark Baldassare of PPIC is an excellent pollster. He’s as unbiased as they come, interested only in gathering data that accurately reflect the public’s outlook on important issues. His survey methodology is first-rate (despite some reservations we have about how he handles cell phones), he has massive resources, a fair-minded approach to public policy research and pristine academic and professional credentials.
Which doesn’t mean his work is flawless. There are some reasons why PPIC’s measure on offshore oil drilling – even if it’s 100% accurate — may not reflect what California voters actually think about offshore oil drilling as an issue in state politics.
With its constellation of questions, PPIC is actually measuring what California voters think about a cluster of policies – asked in a series that is rotated randomly — designed “to address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources.” These include: requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in this country; building more nuclear power plants; increasing federal funding to develop wind, solar, and hydrogen technology, and allowing more oil drilling off the California coast.
In other words, offshore oil drilling is being examined primarily, not as an environmental issue – which, in our view, is how most California voters approach it – but as a function of national energy policy.
Even in that context – and here’s where the enviros have an argument – proposing offshore oil drilling as a way to “address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources” is a dubious proposition.
As Media Matters for America has previously documented, the Energy Department’s Annual Energy Outlook 2007 found “access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017.”
PPIC is not alone in posing offshore oil drilling as a matter of national energy policy. The esteemed Field Poll has done much the same, asking in July 2008, whether “oil companies should be allowed to drill more oil and gas wells in state tidelands along the California coast” as one of the policies for respondents to consider after this introduction:
“I’m going to read some proposals that have been made that attempt to deal with the rising cost of energy. For each, please tell me whether you agree or disagree.”
Interestingly, the Field Poll – which surveys registered voters and includes (at great expense) a large component of respondents who have only cell phones — asked that about the same time PPIC did last summer and came up with a mirrored response: 51% disagreed and 43% agreed – just about an identical flip-flop of the PPIC finding.
It’s unclear why Field and PPIC would have such different results on the offshore oil question. Sampling differences, especially of cell phone-only respondents, the cluster of policies in which offshore oil is included, question order, to name of few factors, could explain the difference. That’s a story for another day.
Despite Nava’s complaint, there’s good reason for both surveys to ask the offshore oil drilling question as they have – in order to track public opinion over time. The shift PPIC has found, for instance, especially among independent voters (since Democrats and Republicans have not changed much) is worth noting when looking at how the issue compares to other policy choices.
But as Baldassare acknowledged, it is possible that the set-up – crafted from national polling questions and designed to measure offshore drilling as a policy option among several others — is problematic in measuring support for offshore oil drilling as a distinctly California political issue.
So what is to be done? We hope that our good friends at PPIC and Field will, in some future poll, ask about offshore oil drilling as an environmental question or as a stand-alone question concerning California public policy to avoid confusion stemming from conflation with attitudes on gas prices or dependence on foreign oil.
Our gut-level suspicion is that a candidate who supports offshore oil drilling in a statewide race does so at his or her own peril. But some hard data would be valuable.