Environmental support dips vs. economy - poll

Americans still say protection should be a priority over the economy, but nearly three in four favor offshore drilling.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With the U.S. economy mired in a slump, Americans still believe saving the environment is more important than fixing the economy, according to a new poll released Thursday. But consumers are more closely divided on the issue than they have been in the past.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research poll, 49% of Americans say protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. That compares to 44% of those surveyed who said the economy is the top priority, and the government should focus on economic growth even at the expense of the environment.

But environmental advocacy groups say the government may not have to make that choice.

"It's a false dichotomy," said Carroll Muffett, deputy campaigns director at Greenpeace. "In truth, what is truly good for the environment is what is truly good for the economy, because a shift to better energy solutions would create jobs."

Still, 73% of the more than 1,000 Americans surveyed from June 26 to 29 said they favored an expansion of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas in protected U.S. waters, even though many environmental advocacy groups have deemed offshore drilling as hazardous to the environment.

Though most U.S. oil production comes from offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, the government has imposed a moratorium on offshore drilling off the East coast, West coast, and the East Gulf close to Florida.

"The moratoriums for offshore drilling were adopted for a reason," said Muffett. "When the shorelines are covered with oil spills, people would find offshore drilling far less appealing a solution."

But others say drilling offshore is a necessary step in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. Experts believe there could be in excess of 18 billion gallons of oil that is currently off-limits to drillers.

"Any credible energy report will tell you energy demand will increase over the next few decades," said Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute. "We cannot drill our way out of this problem, but drilling is an important part of the solution."

Furthermore, an increase in offshore drilling may be good for the economy.

"Revenues from oil and gas activities are the second largest revenue generator for the United States behind taxes," said Landry. "An expansion of offshore drilling would create high paying jobs for construction workers in the development phase and oil drillers when the platforms are ready to be used."

Wallet's impact Historically, Americans have said it is more important to prioritize the environment, especially when the economy is booming. In 1995, 62% favored the environment, and in 2000, 70% said the environment should be the government's top priority.

But when the economy is struggling, people weigh the issues more equally. For instance, in 2003, when the economy was coming out of a recession and gas prices started soaring, only 47% said the environment should be a higher priority for the government than the economy.

Rising prices - especially record fuel prices - have hurt Americans in the wallets. The average price of a gallon of gas rose to an all-time high of nearly $4.10 a gallon Thursday, according to a survey from motorist group AAA.

In a section of the poll released Wednesday, 72% said record gas prices have caused them to make changes in their daily lives, and 30% said those changes were major ones. To top of page

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