May 11, 2010

Oil Spill Seen As Ecological Disaster; Government, BP Responses Faulted

Support for Offshore Drilling Declines

Overview

A majority of Americans see the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as a major environmental disaster, but nearly as many voice optimism that efforts to control the spill will succeed.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 6-9 among 994 adults, finds that the public is critical of the response to the crisis by the federal government and British Petroleum, the company that operated the oil rig that exploded on April 20 and is now struggling to stop the underwater oil release.

Evaluations of the initial government response are similar to public views of federal efforts immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Currently, 54% say the response by the federal government has been only fair or poor, which is comparable to the government’s initial rating for handling Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 (58% only fair/poor). Nonetheless, British Petroleum gets even more negative ratings for its handling of the oil leak (63% only fair/poor).

The criticism extends to President Obama, with just 38% saying they approve of his handling of the oil leak and 36% saying they disapprove. About a quarter (26%) offer no opinion. Still, opinion about Obama’s performance is not as negative as opinion about former President George W. Bush’s response to the flooding caused by Katrina. That September, 52% disapproved of Bush’s response to Katrina and 67% said he could have done more. Today, 47% say Obama could have done more to get the government’s response to the oil leak going quickly.

The spill also appears to have taken a toll on support for offshore drilling near the United States. Currently, 54% say they favor allowing more offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. waters, which is down from 63% in early February and 68% in April 2009. Virtually all of the decline in support for offshore drilling has occurred among Democrats and independents as Republicans remain as supportive as they were before the spill.

There also is slightly less support for increasing federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen technology than there was in February (73% today, 78% then). About two-thirds (65%) favor spending more on subway, rail and transit systems, compared with 70% in February. About half (45%) favor promoting the increased use of nuclear power, down slightly from 52% earlier this year.

In general, the public is divided over whether oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico are unavoidable if the United States is going to get an adequate supply of energy: 41% say such spills are unavoidable while 45% disagree.

The public had a much different reaction in April 1989, shortly after the huge oil spill caused by the crash of the Exxon Valdez tanker ship in Alaska. At that time, 74% said such spills were unavoidable while just 18% said they were not. The percentage saying such spills are unavoidable has declined substantially across partisan groups, education levels and regions.

Major Disaster Unfolding in the Gulf

More than half (55%) of the public say the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is a major environmental disaster; another 37% see it as a serious problem – but not a disaster. Just 4% say it is not too serious.

At the same time, 51% say efforts to control the spill and keep it from spreading further will be successful. About three-in-ten (29%) say those efforts will not succeed.

Independents (60%) and Democrats (55%) are more likely to say they see the spill as a major disaster than Republicans (46%). Democrats also express less certainty that the efforts to control the spill will succeed: 57% of Republicans say they think these efforts will be successful, compared with 47% of Democrats. More than half of independents (52%) agree.

Those following news about the growing oil slick very closely also are more likely to see the oil leak in the gulf as a major disaster. Among those who say they are following this news very closely, 67% characterize it as a major environmental disaster. Among those following it less closely, just 47% say they see the spill that way.

Rating the President’s Performance

Obama’s overall approval rating is unchanged from last month; 47% say they approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, while 42% disapprove. But a smaller percentage (38%) say they approve of his handling of the oil leak in the Gulf, while 36% disapprove. About a quarter say they do not know (26%), more than double the 11% that say they do not know when asked about the president’s overall performance.

Not surprisingly, partisans offer decidedly different takes on Obama’s response to the worsening oil slick now threatening much of the Gulf Coast. More than half of Democrats say they approve of how Obama is handling the oil leak (53%), while 23% disapprove. Opinions among Republicans are the reverse: 18% approve of the job Obama is doing while 54% disapprove. Independents mirror the nation as a whole: 37% of independents approve and 38% disapprove of Obama’s performance on this.

In September 2005, shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, about half of the public (52%) disapproved of Bush’s response to the disaster then unfolding in New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast; 38% approved of his performance. At that time, the partisan differences were also stark: two thirds of Republicans (67%) approved of his job performance, compared with 20% of Democrats and 38% of independents.

The public also was highly critical of how Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, handled the response to Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. More than half (52%) disapproved of the president’s handling of the crisis that April. About a quarter (24%) said they approved of the older Bush’s performance, while 24% answered that they did not know.

By another measure, close to half the public (47%) says Obama could have done more in his initial response to the oil spill in the Gulf. Just more than a third (36%) say he did all he could. Again, partisan views differ sharply. Six-in-ten Republicans (60%) say Obama could have done more, compared with 53% of independents and 32% of Democrats.

In 2005, a greater percentage of the public (67%) said that George W. Bush could have done more to get relief efforts going quickly following the devastation caused by Katrina. Fewer than three-in-ten (28%) said Bush did all he could do. At that time, the partisan differences were also sharp: More than eight-in-ten Democrats (84%) said Bush could have done more, compared with 71% of independents and 40% of Republicans.

Less Support for Offshore Drilling among Democrats and Independents

The spill also seems to have taken a toll on support for offshore drilling near the United States. Though more than half (54%) say they approve of offshore drilling, that is down from 63% in February and 68% in April 2009.

But more Americans still say they favor allowing increased drilling in U.S. waters than favor promoting the use of nuclear power (45%). The public expresses slightly lower levels of support than in February for each of the four approaches to boosting the energy supply included in the survey. Currently, 73% favor more fun
ding for alternative energy sources, while 65% favor more spending on mass transit.

Opinions among Republicans are unchanged from February (76% approve), but the percentage of Democrats and independents that say they favor off shore drilling has dropped 13 points each to 41% among Democrats and 53% among independents.

Public Critical of Both Government and British Petroleum

Americans are more critical of British Petroleum than the federal government when assessing the response of both to the crisis in the gulf. More than half of the public (54%) rate the response of the government as only fair or poor, while 33% rate it as good or excellent. Republicans are much more likely to be highly critical than Democrats or independents.

Just 16% of Republicans rate the government response positively, while 71% say it has been only fair or poor. Independent views also tilt negative: 52% say the response has been only fair or poor, while 37% say it has been excellent or good. Democrats are more divided: 42% rate the response as excellent or good, while 46% rate it as only fair or poor.

More than six-in-ten (63%), meanwhile, rate BP’s performance as only fair or poor, while 24% rate it as good or excellent. Similar majorities of independents (67%), Democrats (65%) and Republicans (59%) rate the company’s response as only fair or poor. Three-in-ten Republicans (31%) rate the response as excellent or good, compared to 19% of Democrats and 24% of independents.