tampabay.com

Poll says Floridians selfish on oil drilling

We use too much to justify closing our waters to explorations, most say. Opinions are strong on immigration and insurance, too.

By JONI JAMES
Published August 13, 2006


Skyrocketing fuel prices combined with continued unrest in the Middle East is prompting a surprising political shift in Florida, according to a St. Petersburg Times poll: More Floridians support offshore drilling than oppose it.

And nearly four out of 10 Floridians think the Sunshine State is being selfish for refusing to allow offshore drilling when the state is such a major energy hog.

The results come just as competing plans were passed by the U.S. Senate and U.S. House for opening much of the waters around Florida to oil and natural gas exploration.

"Drilling has become synonymous with relief at the pump," said pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Co., which conducted the survey with Schroth Eldon & Associates. "That's why you're seeing these numbers increase. ... (High fuel prices) are taking a major bite out of the kitchen table budget."

On other key issues, the poll also found:

- Voters overwhelmingly want state government to play a larger role in offering hurricane insurance to homeowners and businesses.

- Despite Florida's large population of immigrants, voters view the impact of illegal immigration negatively and want tougher enforcement of the nation's immigration laws.

- Voters are split on whether the federal government is adequately prepared to respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The results reflect an electorate anxious over many issues three weeks before the Sept. 5 primary, said pollster Tom Eldon.

Asked the most pressing question for elected officials, respondents gave strong votes to everything from protecting Social Security, improving public education and increasing access to affordable health care, to resolving the situation in Iraq and fighting international terrorism.

"No one issue truly breaks out," said Eldon.

The St. Petersburg Times telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Aug. 6-9 by Schroth, whose clients are primarily Democrats, and the Polling Co., which works mainly with Republicans.

When it comes to offshore drilling, 46 percent of those polled said they support lifting the existing drilling ban off Florida's coastline; 42 percent oppose lifting the ban and 12 percent said they didn't know or refused to answer. The poll's margin of error on statewide questions is plus or minus 3.5 percent.

"This is about $3 gas at the pump," U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said Saturday when told of the poll's results. He played a lead role in negotiating the Senate drilling plan earlier this month. "You tell people (the Senate plan) would put it 100 miles to 200 miles off shore and they see it's closer to Veracruz (Mexico) than Florida."

In the Tampa Bay area, however, a majority of voters - 51 percent - remain opposed to drilling. The margin of error for Tampa Bay questions is 6 percent. Tampa Bay Republicans, like in the rest of the state, are more likely to support it.

"I don't like the looks of it," said Republican Emma Lewis, a Boca Raton senior citizen, who has seen oil rigs off California's coast when she visits her daughter there. "But we do need it, and if it would be good for us, and we could do it so it doesn't harm us and the ecology, I'd support it."

Independent voter George Williams, 57, of Greenacres, said he would support drilling despite being frustrated that politicians haven't pushed harder to develop alternative fuels.

"They might as well drill oil because the country needs it more than the manatees," Williams said.But wildlife is exactly the reason Democrat Mike Riley of Naples, 51, fears oil rigs will lead to spills that would do irreparable harm. "The southern gulf doesn't flush itself well. We'll kill all the life in southwest Florida."

Asked if it was selfish of Floridians to continue to oppose the drilling, 37 percent of respondents said "Yes."

"We are kind of selfish. I love the beach and used to live at Indian Rocks Beach and I do want to protect it," said Republican Jim Pello, 29, of St. Petersburg. "But at the same time, we're paying $3 a gallon for gas. ... Is that really fair for the rest of the country? It's really not."

Mark Ferrulo said the poll results underscore a public relations success by the oil companies. Ferrulo, executive director for Florida Public Interest Research Group, has been key for years in rallying public opposition to lifting the drilling ban.

"They're trying to convince people we can drill our way out of current energy problems and we can't," said Ferrulo. "That's oil we won't see for six to 10 years and if we do, it will be literally a drop in the bucket compared to how much oil we're consuming as a nation."

Both proposals under consideration in Congress would open millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration, though the Senate has passed a measure that is more restrictive than one approved by the House in June. If the two chambers can't agree to a compromise, the issue will come back next year.

When it comes to illegal immigration, Floridians are far less conflicted than Congress. The Washington debate, over the most sweeping immigration legislation in two decades, has divided the nation, prompted huge marches and a nationally televised presidential address. A failure to update the nation's immigration laws would be a blow to the GOP-controlled Congress and President Bush, who has made the issue his top domestic priority this year.

But in Florida, a state with a large number of immigrants, the topic appears not nearly as divisive.

Just 13 percent of those polled in Florida said they thought illegal immigration had a positive impact on the nation's economy; 48 percent said it had a mixed impact and 35 percent said it was negative.

"Some people are certainly doing the jobs others do not want to do," said Diane Greenberg of Wellington, a 55-year-old voter not affiliated with any party. "But they should have to pay the taxes. They should not get the benefits of living here without doing the things the rest of us do."

Greenberg's sentiments appear to be in the majority in Florida: 78 percent of the poll's respondents said they would support allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship if they learned English and paid a portion of back taxes. That position has been embraced by the U.S. Senate, but not by House, where members refer to it as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

Martinez, who also played a lead role in the Senate immigration plan, said the results show Floridians embrace a "sensible solution."

But the majority of Floridians, 53 percent, don't support a U.S. Senate plan to expand guest worker programs that would allow more immigrants to come into the United States legally.

Sixty-eight percent support using National Guards troops to monitor the Mexico border, but only 43 percent support building a wall or fence there.

"The first thing they should do is stop the illegal immigration across the border," said Democrat Don Stucker of Gainesville, 68. "I'm not interested in what would be done with the people here until after that has happened."

The House passed a bill that focuses on increasing border security and other enforcement measures but offers no way for 12-million illegal immigrants to become citizens. In May, the Senate approved a more comprehensive bill that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, expand guest worker programs and increase security.

Poll respondents were also clear on one other matter: They want more state involvement in the property insurance market. Seventy percent support the state expanding its role.

Democrat John O'Connell, a retired postal worker in Sebring, says his homeowners insurance bill is doubling, and he thinks state leaders are late in jumping on the crisis.

"I don't think they're doing what they can at all," said O'Connell, 73.

Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, said he agrees more can be done than the law legislators passed in May. Since then, the global reinsurance market, where insurance companies buy coverage for their protection, has raised rates. Those increased costs are being passed on to homeowners directly.

Later this month, Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet are expected to create a new state-backed reinsurance plan for providing property insurance for businesses.

"The environment we were in in March and April is quite different from the one we're in now," said Lee, who is a candidate for chief financial officer. "The trick is how do we expand the state involvement and still minimize the downside risk for (all taxpayers) when the wind blows? There are no sound-bite solutions."