THE HILL POLL: Expand drilling to ease energy crisis, voters say

Rising energy prices are prompting support among likely voters for expanding U.S. drilling and releasing oil from the country’s emergency stockpiles, a new poll conducted for The Hill shows.

By a 66-25 percent margin, likely voters say President Obama should encourage more oil and gas exploration offshore, and by a 50-35 percent margin they favor releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to moderate gas price increases.

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The same survey shows that stepped-up GOP allegations that White House energy policies are raising prices have failed to give Republicans a political edge on the issue.

Slightly more than half the respondents — 52 percent — said neither party should be blamed for high gas prices. Twenty-two percent of those polled blame Republicans, while 19 percent blame Democrats.

The findings follow a surge in oil and gasoline prices in recent weeks amid unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The political turmoil has revived concerns about the United States’ reliance on imported oil, and led President Obama to hold a news conference Friday on the issue.

Oil and gasoline prices are at their highest levels in well over two years, with oil hitting almost $107 per barrel early last week, although prices eased back toward $100 later in the week.

Average gasoline prices late last week were $3.54 per gallon, compared with $3.12 a month ago and $2.78 at this time last year, according to the American Automobile Association. The Energy Department’s statistical arm estimated last week that there’s a 25 percent chance average prices could top $4 per gallon this summer.

The March 9 survey of 1,000 likely voters found a partisan divide on expanding drilling on U.S. lands and in federal waters.

Eighty-three percent of Republicans favored more drilling, while only 47 percent of Democrats thought the same. Forty-two percent of Democrats oppose more drilling.

The finding suggests that last year’s catastrophic BP oil spill — which prompted the White House to abandon plans for a major offshore drilling expansion — is weighing less heavily on voters’ minds than the current price spikes.

Opening more areas for drilling would generally not lead to increased oil production for years, and the Energy Department has estimated that wider offshore drilling in the Lower 48 states would have little effect on oil prices.

Republicans have also revived calls for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a proposal the White House opposes that last came close to passage in the middle of the last decade.

The Hill’s poll shows most likely voters are opposed to drilling in ANWR, with 42 percent wanting Congress to allow drilling there, 46 percent opposed and 13 percent unsure. The partisan divide here also is stark: 61 percent of Republican likely voters support drilling there, while 61 percent of Democrats oppose it.

While half of the poll respondents favored releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the idea is not starkly partisan. Republicans favor the idea 54-38 percent, while Democrats favor it by a slightly narrower 47-32 percent and independents by a narrower still 49-36 percent.

At his press conference Friday, Obama said the administration is “prepared” to tap the country’s oil reserves if necessary, but emphasized that the reserve has only been tapped in the past due to supply disruptions.

Several top Capitol Hill Democrats — such as Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of committee panels that oversee energy policy — are calling for an SPR release, while many Republicans have attacked the idea.

Elsewhere, just 21 percent of likely voters believe rising oil prices are a good thing because they hasten development of green alternative sources, while 58 percent disagreed and 21 percent said they were unsure.

The poll was conducted for The Hill by Pulse Opinion Research and has a margin of error of 3 percent.

This article was updated at 7:03 a.m.  Download the full polling results in an Excel spreadsheet here.