INSIGHT: Offshore drilling gains as election issue

21 August 2008 17:47  [Source: ICIS news]

Offshore drilling gains as voter issue in USBy Joe Kamalick


WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Offshore drilling, fuel costs and other energy issues have gained new prominence as US election issues and have helped presidential hopeful John McCain pull ahead of rival Barack Obama in the battle for independent voters.


According to the latest Battleground Poll issued this week, voters now rate gasoline and energy prices as the most critical election issue behind general concern about the US economy and jobs, with the war in Iraq slipping to third place.


In December last year, the same Battleground Poll found the economy to be the most pressing concern among voters, with the Iraq war, immigration, healthcare costs and jobs following in order.


At that time, energy costs were hardly on voters’ radar at all, with only 4% of those polled listing fuel or energy as major concerns.


That, however, was before crude began its historic price climb and pulled US retail gasoline prices with it, raising transportation, food, home heating, electricity and other costs for American families.


Now energy is a core issue and the voting public is eager to bring any and all remedies into play, according to the poll conducted last week among likely voters nationwide by Republican polling firm Tarrance Group Inc and its Democrat counterpart Lake Research Partners.


The Battleground Poll, sponsored by George Washington University, found that fully 72% of likely voters support expanded oil and gas drilling in US outer continental shelf (OCS) regions closed to development under a congressional moratorium.


In what seems to be a very significant shift, 58% of polled voters even favour drilling for oil and gas in the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. 


It is hard to know how much of voter shift is represented in this result, because the Battleground Poll did not ask an ANWR question in its December 2007 questionnaire; energy was not a pressing issue then.


But other earlier polls indicate that US voters previously opposed energy drilling in ANWR by 53% against to 35% in favour. 


So voter sentiment in favour of ANWR drilling - and broader development of domestic energy resources generally - has changed substantially as the cost of fuel and energy has risen.


Last week’s poll also found that voters support new nuclear power plants (69%), additional wind farms (90%) and government incentives for renewable energy sources including wind, solar and geothermal (93%). In addition, 64% support greater use of coal for electricity generation.


However, it is voter support for OCS drilling that seems most significant, and that shift in popular sentiment has apparently played to the advantage of Republican candidate McCain.


McCain supports expanded offshore drilling and an end to the congressional ban. While McCain initially opposed energy development in ANWR, he has since said he would reconsider that option if drilling there could be done with environmental safety.


In contrast, Democrat Senator Obama remains opposed to lifting the congressional moratorium on 85% of the US OCS region and is equally opposed to ANWR drilling. 


In addition, his energy plan calls for imposition of a multi-billion dollar windfall profits tax on energy firms in order to provide a $1,000 fuel subsidy for taxpayer families.


As of last week, 40% of voters hold that McCain is better suited to solve the country’s energy woes, while support for Obama on this issue has fallen to 37%.


In the Battleground Poll conducted in May this year, 50% of voters said they thought Obama could best reduce US gasoline and energy costs, while only 31% said they believed McCain could achieve that goal. 


Tarrance vice-president Brian Nienaber and Lake Research's Celinda Lake said that McCain’s stance on energy policy has played at least some part in moving McCain ahead of Obama among all-important independent voters.


Both McCain and Obama are said to have more or less secured the base of support among their respective party faithful, but Lake and Nienaber noted that McCain essentially has reversed Obama’s standing among independents.


In the May battleground poll, Obama led McCain by 14 points among independent voters. By last week, McCain had taken a 10-point lead over his Democrat rival among voters not affiliated with either main party.


Of course there are many issues other than energy on which voters will base their final decisions on 4 November, but the fact that energy has become such a major concern clearly has helped McCain.


In May, the pollsters asked likely voters which candidate they would chose if the election were being held that day. Obama got 49% to McCain’s 47%, with 5% undecided. In last week’s poll, Obama had slipped to 46% while McCain held at 47% and the undecided grew to 7%.


It is in that narrow “undecided” wedge that the outcome of the election likely will be decided.


Republican pollster Nienaber said that the latest poll results suggest that Obama is in trouble.


“Three-quarters of voters think the country is on the wrong track and a like number think the economy is in poor shape, but Obama, the ‘change candidate,’ is still below 50% among voters and is locked in a dead heat with his Republican opponent,” Nienaber said, indicating that Obama should be doing much better at this point in the contest if he is to win in November.


However, Lake, the Democrat pollster, thinks that when the national presidential campaign swings into full gear next month after the Democrat and Republican conventions, Obama will pull ahead.


For Lake, Senator McCain’s biggest problem is the highly unpopular President George Bush. Democrats, she said, will make every effort to tie McCain to Bush and the president’s record-high disapproval ratings.


“Bush is not just a lame duck president,” Lake said, “he’s an albatross around McCain’s neck.”


For now, while McCain has made crucial gains among independent voters, both Lake and Nienaber say the election outcome is just too close to call. 


They note too that there are several key events yet to unfold between now and the 4 November balloting: both candidates are soon to name their vice-presidential picks, the high-profile conventions will be played out and the presidential debates will be held.


There are multiple opportunities in all of that for each candidate to make advances - or major blunders.


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By: Joe Kamalick
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