Opinion polls are fueling politicians and candidates to push for more U.S. offshore oil drilling, with the media looking on intently.

Since the issue became a political focal point in May and June, polling has been relentless: Zogby. Rasmussen. Field. Gallup. Quinnipiac. CNN. Bloomberg. The list goes on. All point to an increasing public desire to lift a moratorium on more domestic drilling.

It’s a rough reality check for the climate change movement: the American public increasingly seems willing to walk – or drive – away from climate change concerns, as high gas prices trump principle.

But as with all polls, the framing is paramount and the media’s interpretation crucial.

Keith Johnson, a longtime energy reporter who now writes the “Environmental Capital” blog for The Wall Street Journal, said survey questions should be parsed carefully.

“In polls in which the question is something like, ‘Do you prefer more drilling or more investment in alternative energy?,’ alternative energy usually comes out ahead,” Johnson told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview. A new Quinnipiac poll bolsters that case.

Notably, a Gallup poll widely cited by the press beginning in June – precisely the time President Bush, Senator John McCain, and Governor Charlie Crist of Florida all began advocating for more drilling – did not ask respondents to choose from alternatives. It simply asked if they would favor or oppose drilling to “attempt to reduce the price of gasoline.” And 57 percent said they were in favor, a factor alluded to by Crist in his decision to reverse his position and support more drilling.

Another influential, and crucially timed, poll by Zogby, released June 20, asserted that 74 percent of Americans favor offshore drilling, but it too did not present options.

Media outlets cite the Gallup and Zogby polls often, and often without qualification. (Gallup argues in its news release that asking respondents to choose among alternatives does not “provide information about the relative acceptability … of the alternative proposals taken separately.”)

Some polls, though, do show nuance when they ask multi-part questions. For example, a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 51 percent of state residents support more drilling; but it also showed that 83 percent want more federal funding for wind, solar, and hydrogen technology.

Johnson said the overall public opinion trends in favor of more drilling are unmistakable, though it remains unclear what mix of remedies the public actually wants, now or in the future.

“Whether (drilling) comes at the expense of the environment, or – like in California – the two are believed by poll-respondents to be mutually inclusive – that is a different question,” he added. “It will be interesting to see if a) oil keeps falling and b) gas starts to fall seriously, then what happens to that support.”

Platform Fever

The national spotlight is squarely on the issue. President Bush recently lifted the Executive Order drilling ban signed by his father and retained throughout the Clinton administration and the first seven-plus years of Bush II. And a battle to nix the ban has raged in Congress, with Republicans smelling a winning issue both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.

Some openness to drilling is filtering also into Senator Barack Obama’s speeches. In an interview with a newspaper in Florida – where more offshore drilling has gained voter support – Obama said that he would consider it as part of a comprehensive energy package. “If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well-thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage – I don’t want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done,” he recently told the Palm Beach Post

His choice of Florida for announcing that policy shift is likely no accident, given the importance of the state’s electoral count and given that campaigners McCain and Crist, whether or not the eventual GOP ticket, had earlier shifted their own positions.

It’s worth noting, too, that one of Obama’s top potential vice presidential “short list” prospects, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia, has signaled his willingness to explore resources off his state’s coast. With Florida’s Crist reportedly on the shortlist to be McCain’s running mate, all four principals in the presidential race might be backing more drilling in one form or another.

Offshore drilling, however, remains an intensely local issue, as the federal government has traditionally deferred to states. Though Washington technically controls the waters from three to 200 miles offshore, the Bush administration continues to say it will leave the decision to state officials.

Benjamin Arnoldy, a reporter who has covered the issue for The Christian Science Monitor, said that Californians last showed more eagerness for drilling during the late 1970s oil crisis. That support bottomed out in the 1990s, with low gas prices.

Arnoldy, who is based in Oakland, said he’s surprised this time by how long it has taken for rising gas prices to push their way onto the political stage.

“The issue could be seen as an early indicator of how much economic pain voters are prepared to shoulder in the transition to a cleaner energy future,” he told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview.

California’s inlanders are more supportive of drilling than coastal dwellers, a pattern that applies across the country, Arnoldy noted. (Many older coastal Californians remember the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969.)

Voters in four crucial election swing states – Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all with no ocean in sight – support more offshore drilling by large margins, according to The Wall Street Journal.

No surprise, then, that the Denver Post and Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune ) have taken editorial positions in favor of more drilling, while papers around the coasts like the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Boston Globe have given it a thumbs-down.

But attitudes are changing even in places heavily dependent on fisheries and coastal tourism. “Where once there was nearly universal opposition to platforms in the ocean,” Barbara Barrett, reporter for The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), wrote in a July 10 story, “some speak of them in a new way – as a possibility, an inevitability, even a financial benefit to a region long fearful of the damage drilling could do to tourism and ecology.”

The Barrel Wars

One big unknown haunting the whole debate, of course, is whether new drilling for the estimated 18 billion barrels of oil available in off-limits areas could actually push down gas prices, or get America closer to energy independence. Many pro-environment voices have said that more drilling is a fraud and an opportunistic grab by so-called “Big Oil.” That would mean the poll questions – i.e., “Do you want more drilling to lower prices?” – are built on false premises, a pipe dream held out to a desperate and cash-strapped public.

The Department of Energy estimates that it would be two decades or so before the new oil would reach the market, and many Democrats advocate just tapping the national reserves now to tamp down price speculation.

Energy journalist Robert Bryce, whose new book “Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of ‘Energy Independence’” is critical of both political parties’ inflated rhetoric, said he thinks the mainstream media’s coverage has been “remarkably uninformed.”

“In particular, there’s been almost no critical assessment of the Democrats’ continuing claims that there’s not much oil to be found offshore,” he told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview.

Bryce cites successful oil exploration recently in deep water off the coasts of Louisiana, Brazil, and Africa. “Despite these rather obvious news events, very few of the mainstream media stories bothered to mention the boom in the global offshore sector when talking about the drilling ban,” he said.

Further, both parties’ calls for “energy independence” are naiïve, he said, given that the U.S. imports oil from 90 countries and exports oil to 73. Politicians, Bryce asserts, do not “have the vaguest understanding of just how integrated the global energy market is.”

Joseph Romm, a former Clinton administration Energy Department official who writes the ClimateProgress.org blog, pointed out in Congressional testimony on July 23 that most of the known oil is off the California coast. And California’s politicians remain fairly united against drilling.

“So that leaves about eight billion barrels, which is about what the world uses in three months,” Romm said in his testimony opposing new drilling.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Johnson said new oil from offshore drilling is unlikely to have a near-term “practical” impact on oil flow, though it could have a “psychological” one on trading.

“Crude is priced in the futures market, and future price expectations are what moves the market,” Johnson noted. But he cautioned there are few certainties – except for the new energy reality.

“What is certain, or at least seems to me, is that the media attention to the energy crunch in recent weeks and months has been commensurate with its growing importance in the campaign, in business discourse, in daily life, etc.,” he said. “So that, at least, is worth celebrating.”

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...