You may have heard that in the face of high gas prices, there’s been a fairly dramatic sea change in public opinion when it comes to offshore oil drilling. And it’s true that poll after poll shows increasing willingness on the part of Americans to lift the moratorium on domestic oil exploration. (57 percent favored drilling in August compared to 35 percent in February). But public opinion is often far more complicated than “yes” or “no.”

John Wihbey at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media provides a reality check about how poll questions about drilling have been framed. For example, he points out (quoting Wall Street Journal energy reporter and blogger Keith Johnson), that when poll questions offer a choice between drilling and more investment in alternative energy, alternative energy usually comes out ahead. But lots of polls don’t give respondents the range of options.

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  • A widely cited – and politically leveraged – poll from Gallup simply asked if respondents would favor or oppose drilling to “attempt to reduce the price of gasoline” – no alternatives were offered. And 57 percent said they were in favor. In June, Zogby reported 74 percent in favor.

    But many have argued that poll questions that link drilling to lower prices are built on false premises in the first place.

    Wihbey points out that some polls do show nuance when they ask questions beyond yes or no. For example, a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 51 percent of CA residents support more drilling; but it also showed that 83 percent want more federal funding for wind, solar, and hydrogen technology. The same poll reveals a consistent level of concern about environmental impacts, including climate change and air quality.

    A Gallup poll released this week put support for drilling on a list below other energy solutions as reasons to get behind a particular candidate.

    • 69 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports establishing tax incentives to encourage energy conservation.
    • 68 percent more likely to support a candidate who would raise fuel mileage standards.
    • 64 percent for candidates in favor of government investment in biofuels research.
    • 62 percent for candidates who’d establish price controls on gasoline.
    • 58 percent for candidates who would impose windfall profits tax on oil companies.
    • 57 percent for candidates who support easing restrictions on off-shore drilling.

    Wihbey et al aren’t saying that the increase in support for drilling is non-existent. Just that drilling doesn’t stand alone as a solution in Americans’ minds.