Majorities of Americans support the Willow oil project and want energy independence for the U.S.

Linley SandersData Journalist
April 12, 2023, 3:20 PM GMT+0

Last month, President Joe Biden approved the Willow oil drilling project, which will allow an energy company to drill for oil on federal land in Alaska. The project has triggered lawsuits from environmental groups over its anticipated damage to the environment, but construction on the project is allowed to continue while the lawsuits proceed.

A new YouGov poll finds that Americans are twice as likely to support than oppose the Willow project, largely because of overwhelming Republican support: Democrats are divided on it. Overall, Americans support the United States' striving for energy independence and more people want the U.S. to increase its domestic oil production than decrease it. However, many Americans also believe that oil drilling contributes to climate change and want the U.S. to develop energy sources as alternatives to oil.

The Willow project was initially approved during former President Donald Trump's administration, but gained final approval from the Biden administration. Previous question-wording experiments from YouGov have shown that Americans' opinion of an action can be affected by whether or not the action is tied to a president's name in the question. To test if that was the case with the Willow project, a random half of respondents were asked if they approve of the project that Biden approved. The other random half were asked about approval for the Willow project after being told only that it is a "recently approved government project." (Everyone was told the project "will allow an energy company to drill for oil on federal land in Alaska.")

There was little effect from mentioning or omitting Biden's name: 55% approve of the project when it's associated with Biden's name, and 52% approve when it's simply called a government project — perhaps because many people associate the word "government" with Biden whether or not he's named. There was a shift among Democrats: 48% approve when told that the Willow project is Biden-approved, compared to 38% who approve when Biden's name is left out.

Half of Americans (50%) think the Willow project will have a positive impact on the U.S. economy, with 11% expecting a negative outcome. Only about one in five (19%) say the planned oil drilling will have a positive impact on the environment, and 33% say it will have a negative effect.

Democrats and Republicans have significantly different views on the impact of the proposed Willow oil drilling project. When it comes to the economy, only 41% of Democrats believe it would have a positive impact, compared to 73% of Republicans. In contrast, 49% of Democrats believe the drilling project would have a negative impact on the environment, compared to 17% of Republicans.

Overall, the goal of energy independence for the U.S. is highly popular, with bipartisan support. Four in five (79%) Americans believe that the country should strive for energy independence, while 7% believe it should not —with energy independence defined as "the country produces enough energy to meet its needs without relying on foreign sources of oil." Republicans (90%) are more likely than Democrats (76%) and Independents (74%) to believe that energy independence should be a goal.

By 51% to 17%, Americans would prefer the U.S. increase rather than decrease its domestic oil production. However, there is a significant difference in opinion between Republicans and Democrats on this issue — suggesting that the goal of "energy independence" does not mean the same thing for members of both parties.

Three-quarters of Republicans (76%) support an increase, compared to 37% of Democrats. Independents fall in the middle, with 45% supporting an increase in domestic oil production. Among people who think the U.S. should strive for energy independence, just 41% of Democrats think the country should increase domestic oil production while 25% say it should decrease. The margin among pro-energy independence Republicans is 79% to 5%.

Despite majority support for the Willow project, many Americans (41%) believe that oil drilling contributes to climate change, including higher percentages of Democrats (63%) and people who think the climate is changing because of human activity (62%).

Half of Americans (53%) think that the world's climate is changing as a result of human activity, and belief in climate change appears to influence how Americans view the country's energy goals more broadly. If Americans had to choose a new energy policy, 44% would most want the country's energy policy to focus on developing alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. Three in 10 would rather focus on developing new sources of oil and drilling approaches. One in 10 Americans would prioritize reducing overall energy consumption through conservation.

Three in five Democrats (61%) chose developing alternative energy sources as the top priority for U.S. energy policy, while 19% chose developing new sources of oil. In contrast, only 25% of Republicans name alternative energy sources while 53% want to focus on new sources of oil and drilling. Two-thirds of Americans who think the climate is changing because of human activity want to focus on developing alternative energy sources. However, majorities of two groups of people who don't think human activity is changing the climate — both people who think the climate is changing but not because of human activity, and ones who think the climate is not changing at all — would prefer to find new sources of oil over alternative energy sources.

See the results from this YouGov poll conducted on March 27 - 30, 2023

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on March 27 - 30, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Adobe Stock (David W Shaw)