Americans Begin to Abandon the Environment

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The broad support that Americans have had for an improved environment has begun to erode as fuel prices have risen. Support of legislation for cleaner air and water may erode as well. This could change the trend in laws meant to cut pollution significantly, as well as adding to problems believed to be part of climate change and other environmental problems. Americans have begun to watch their wallets more than their surroundings.

According to a new Gallup poll:

Americans are about as likely to say production of energy supplies (47%) should be prioritized as to say environmental protection (44%) should be, a closer division than last year, when energy led by 50% to 41%. These views mark a shift compared with the early 2000s, when Americans consistently assigned a higher priority to environmental protection.

Oil was cheaper in the early 2000s, and there was little threat that gasoline prices would reach $4 or even $5. And there was a naive belief among many Americans that solar and wind energy would quickly take the place of fossil fuels. Americans could not have known a decade ago that their incomes would increase barely at all between then and now.

The debate over the environment and fuel costs was revisited again as President Obama, who had opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, said that he would support the construction of its southern leg. The president has come under harsh criticism because the pipeline is seen as a way to create jobs and bring less-expensive energy from Canada to Texas. The fate of the northern leg of the pipeline is still in question, but that may change as well.

The president understands that $5 gas could ruin his chance for reelection. He hinted that his approach to the entire Keystone XL project will change soon. “Unfortunately, Congress decided they wanted their own timeline. Not the company, not the experts, but members of Congress who decided this might be a fun political issue decided to try to intervene and make it impossible for us to make an informed decision.” Maybe there is enough data to make that informed decision now that WTI crude has been well above $100 for three months and the average price of a gallon of regular is $3.85 nationwide.

Gallup further reports that “The Keystone issue in particular has reminded Americans about the trade-offs between increased energy production and risks to the environment.” It is only a matter of weeks — perhaps days — until gas prices top the record they set in 2008. Millions of Americans just cannot afford that.

Methodology: Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 8 to 11, 2012, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Douglas A. McIntyre