Poll: Voters rank candidates’ energy policies over environmental issues

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“Even after the election is over, energy will remain an important subject for Americans because it is also central to so many other policies, especially economic, jobs and environmental policies,” Sarah Simmons, vice president and senior consultant with Harris Interactive, said in a statement announcing the poll’s results.

The poll also gauged voters’ views on the perceived environmental impact of different energy sources.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said nuclear power was harmful, to 32 percent who said it was not harmful to the environment. Nuclear power was the lone energy sourced surveyed with a net harmful rating.

For clean coal, 42 percent said it was not harmful, with 34 saying it was damaging to the environment.

With natural gas, 60 percent said it was not harmful, with 23 percent pegging it harmful.

While a majority disagreed that natural gas inflicts significant environmental damage, respondents split on their views of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

That process injects a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to tap hard-to-reach natural gas. It has been credited with the nation’s shale gas boom, but also has been linked to groundwater contamination and seismic activity.

Twenty-three percent of respondents said natural gas was either very harmful or harmful to the environment. Meanwhile, 40 percent said it was not demonstrably harmful, and 19 percent said it posed no harm to the environment.

On fracking, however, 31 percent of respondents thought the practice trumped the risks, while 32 percent felt the reverse. Thirty-eight percent were unsure.

“Natural gas is viewed differently than more traditional energy sources, like nuclear or coal, as these numbers illustrate. However, the public’s view of natural gas is still evolving, as seen in the divided attitudes toward hydraulic fracturing,” Simmons said.

That could be instructive for policymakers, who are grappling with pressures to expand natural gas production while maintaining environmental safeguards.

Both President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney say they support natural-gas drilling, and have applauded states’ abilities to regulate activity.

Romney, though, wants to give more authority over drilling to states. He argues that the natural-gas boom has occurred in spite of Obama’s policies, noting much of the production has occurred on private and state lands.

The Obama administration has called for more oversight of fracking on federal lands. It has issued draft rules that would require industry to disclose chemicals used in fracking, and that also would address well integrity and management of so-called flowback water.

The Harris poll was an online survey of 2,562 adults conducted between Sept. 17 and Sept. 24.