Obama Voters Favor Compromise on Offshore Drilling, Poll Finds

By Steven Mufson and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008

Will the election of Barack Obama increase the chances that Democrats in Congress will reimpose a moratorium on oil exploration off most of the nation's shorelines?

Not if Obama listens to the views of his voters.

Almost 50 percent of the people polled who voted for Obama favored "drilling for oil offshore in U.S. waters where it is currently not allowed," while 45 percent of them opposed it, according to exit polls conducted Tuesday on behalf of major news organizations. Voters for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supported offshore drilling by a margin of 90 percent.

Despite the margin, the exit polls indicated that the Republican Party's efforts to seize the upper hand on the energy issue fell short, despite entreaties to "drill, baby, drill" from McCain supporters at the GOP convention and on the campaign trail. Only 7 percent of voters polled said that energy policy was the most important policy facing the country, and they split their votes 50 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.

The bulk of Obama supporters polled were either "somewhat in favor" or "somewhat opposed" to opening up new areas for offshore drilling -- opinions that might have attracted them to the Illinois Democrat's position that he would be willing to expand drilling in federal waters if it were part of a compromise that would also promote renewable energy.

As it stands now, President Bush lifted the presidential ban on drilling off the country's Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The ban had been in place since President George H.W. Bush imposed it.

Congress imposed its own moratorium on drilling that was inserted annually into the Interior Department's appropriations bill. But this year, Congress hasn't passed an appropriations bill, and the continuing resolution that is keeping the government funded through March does not include the moratorium, theoretically giving the department the ability to lease exploration tracts as close as three miles from shore to the oil companies for drilling.

Democratic lawmakers probably won't let that stand, congressional sources and environmental groups said.

"Very few people support drilling three miles off our coast, which is what we have now," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "What happens on drilling remains to be seen."

Two-thirds of the voters polled said they favored "drilling for oil offshore in U.S. waters where it is currently not allowed." Obama won 62 percent of the voters who said they were "somewhat in favor" of expanded drilling. McCain won 73 percent of those "strongly in favor" of expanded drilling.

Of the 28 percent of voters polled who said they either "strongly" or "somewhat opposed" expanded offshore drilling, an overwhelming 86 percent voted for Obama.

Democratic leaders in Congress had been willing to go along with a compromise measure that would have allowed expanded drilling if it were kept far from shore. But that was when their appropriations bill was headed for Bush's desk.

Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said that "we'd have to talk to Obama and talk to our caucus" before deciding what new limits to impose.

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