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Offshore Drilling Issue Swinging Away From Drill Now Crowd

BP has moved their containment dome into position today, and its CEO touted progress in containing the massive underwater gusher spewing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. In addition, the company has started to set the Gulf on fire again, with another set of controlled burns.

None of this progress (and I’m not counting anything as progress until the oil stops gushing) has done anything for public attitudes in the wake of the spill. In fact, support for offshore drilling is at a low ebb.

A majority of Americans, 58%, still support adding more oil wells to the nation’s coastal waters. But that’s down from 72% less than Ramussen’s March poll. Less than half in that poll, 49%, said the were “at least somewhat concerned about environmental problems caused by drilling. In the new poll, 69% say they’re concerned about the environmental impact of drilling.

The Rasmussen poll was conducted among 1000 likely voters on May 4-5. The margin of error is 3%.

The images of a the creeping oil slick off the coast of Louisiana that experts say could lead to the largest oil-caused environmental disaster in American history appear to have had an effect on Americans who previously said they were in support of offshore drilling. Proponents of the practice have long said drilling will reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil, an argument that in the past at least seems to have swayed large numbers.

The first place where this hypothesis, whether Americans still have an appetite for offshore drilling now, will be tested is in Florida, where Kendrick Meek has forced this issue into the conversation around the three-way US Senate race there.

Rep. Kendrick Meek Wednesday backed two tough anti-oil industry bills, as the spill in the Gulf of Mexico began to emerge as a political dividing line in the U.S. Senate race.

Meek, the likely Democratic nominee for the Senate seat, and U.S. Sen Bill Nelson teamed up on legislation to block the Obama administration from carrying out plans to expand offshore drilling — at least until the cause of the Gulf spill is uncovered. Meek also co-sponsored legislation that could put oil giant BP on the hook for as much as $10 billion in damages.

“It’s time to put an end to any and every misguided attempt to drill offshore and put Florida’s coasts and economy at risk,” Meek said of the legislation he’s sponsoring with Nelson. “Any effort to revive offshore drilling needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.”

This puts Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist in a tough spot. So far, Rubio is still supporting expanded drilling off the Florida coast, citing the many oil rigs which are not leaking hundreds of thousands of gallons into the water. What a persuasive argument! Crist, however, is moving in Meek’s direction, saying that “all bets are off” when it comes to new drilling. “This is not far enough, this is not safe enough and it sure as heck is not clean enough … We’ve got to cease and desist as it relates to this.”

Meek wisely followed up, criticizing Crist, who once supported new drilling, for shifting with the political winds, and saying “Rubio has taken a firm position — it’s just the wrong one.” He’s clearly using this as a wedge issue. And I don’t think you’ll see him alone in that effort.

Can’t wait to see the logical leaps the “drill baby drill” crowd take next.

UPDATE: Oil is now washing up on several of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana. The more images that come out of this, the more the “Drill Now” crowd has to explain.

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David Dayen

David Dayen