Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Surprise - Jerseyans favor oil drilling off coast


I admit that I was surprised. Were you?

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll on Sunday reported that 56 percent of Garden State residents said they favor drilling for oil or natural gas off the Jersey Shore, while only 36 percent opposed the idea.

The conventional wisdom has long been that coastal drilling--and the attendant risk of an oil spill--poses too great a risk to the Jersey Shore's fishing, boating, beaches and wildlife.

Does the new poll simply reflect a temporary, knee-jerk reaction to $4-a-gallon gas prices? Or does it signal a more fundamental shift, reflecting New Jerseyans' concerns over the nation's inchoate energy policy, fuel dependency on sometimes hostile foreign governments, or even reemerging memories (for those old enough) of gas rationing and alternate-day waits in long lines at the service station?

In their initial reactions to the poll, environmentalists and political leaders seemed to discount the findings. Senator Frank Lautenberg, running for re-election, said: "The way to bring down gas prices ... is to stop speculators from driving up the price of gas, force OPEC to stop hoarding oil and end price gouging."

Governor Corzine's spokesperson said: "New Jersey's coastline is the lifeblood of our economy and a fragile environmental treasure that helps shape our way of life, and the governor intends to fight any attempt to jeopardize it."

"People are always looking for easy answers to complex problems," said NJ's Sierra Club director Jeff Tittle.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama had been saying similar things until national polls showed growing public support for offshore drilling. In more recent pronouncements, his opposition to the drilling has been more moderated.

Is is possible that New Jersey politicians might steer a similar course if the polling winds stay strong? Only time will tell. But it does appear that the public memory of the horrific 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska is fading.

Meanwhile, two other polling questions, which received less media attention, may play an even more significant role in New Jersey as the state moves to develop and implement a new Energy Plan.

Forty one percent of those quizzed said they favored building another nuclear power plant in New Jersey, but 51 percent are against such construction. And 82 percent of those polled say they favor the construction of power-producing wind turbines off the coast, while only 12 percent oppose them.

Currently, New Jersey meets 40 percent of its energy demands through nuclear power and the state's draft energy master plan leaves the door wide open to additional nuclear capacity to meet future needs.

If nothing else, the new polling results should signal to the state's largest energy utility, Public Service Electric and Gas, that it has a lot of public relations work ahead if it decides to move from the speculation stage to the construction stage on an additional reactor in South Jersey, where it already has three nuclear generating stations.

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