Americans expect rising gas prices, slow to react in comparison

By Holly Jessen | March 17, 2011

Despite the fact that Americans expect gas prices to rise this year, fewer cite gas prices as a top economic concern than in 2008, when they reached similar levels, according to two Gallup polls released March 10.

Twenty-seven percent of Americans expect that gas prices will reach $5 or more a gallon this year and another 37 percent anticipate prices to reach $3.75 to $4 a gallon. Only 8 percent of those polled thought gas prices would only rise to $3.75 a gallon. On average, those polled expected a 91 cent increase in gas prices this year. That increase is 36 percent higher than the 2008 Gallup survey on the same subject, partly a reflection of the fact that the survey was conducted earlier in the year than last year.

The poll, which was conducted March 3 to March 6, found that Americans paid an average of $3.45 a gallon at the gas pump. The U.S. DOE’s reported average price for the week that ended March 7 was $3.52. In all, gas prices have increased 75 cents in the past year, Gallup said.

The surge in gas prices has also come up in Gallup polls asking about the most important problem facing the economy today. As gas prices have gone up in the last month, the percentage of Americans mentioning gas prices has gone from 1 percent to 6 percent. That’s actually a low percentage compared to the 17 percent that cited gas prices as the nation’s top problem in April 2008, three weeks after gas prices exceeded $3.50—at that time a record high. By June 2008, 25 percent of Americans said gas prices were the top concern as pump prices topped $4 for the first time. “Gallup's ‘most important problem’ trends suggest that Americans' top-of-mind concern about gas prices will continue to mount as prices edge higher, but isn't likely to surge above 20 percent until prices set a new record, which would be something over $4.11,” Gallup said.

The results of two other Gallup polls released in March show that U.S. oil drilling is gaining favor with Americans and that, although many still favor expanding alternative energy sources, the majority feel development of U.S. energy supplies should trump environmental concerns when the two are at odds.

A March 14 poll showed that support for U.S. offshore drilling increased from 50 percent in May 2010 to 60 percent nearly a year later. A total of 46 percent opposed it last year while only 37 percent oppose it this year. “Last year's finding was recorded about a month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the U.S. Gulf Coast that resulted in a massive oil spill,” Gallup said. “News of that incident has faded, possibly lessening Americans' resistance to coastal area drilling. At the same time, recent turbulence in the Middle East has caused oil prices to rise and has sparked discussion about the stability of the United States' foreign oil supply.”

The poll also shows that 49 percent of Americans favor opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. This is up from 43 percent support when last measured in 2008. In addition, it’s the highest level of support since the question was first asked in 2002.

A March 16 poll shows that 50 percent of Americans feel the U.S. should put the development of its energy supplies at a higher priority than protecting the environment when the two goals are at odds. From 2001 through 2008 Americans showed a clear preference for protecting the environment but that attitude began reversing in 2009.

Development of alternative energy sources is still a priority for Americans, however. A new question on this year’s poll found that 66 percent preferred developing alternative energy such as wind and solar power as the preferred approach for addressing energy concerns and only 26 percent choose production of more oil, gas and coal. Biofuels were not mentioned as a source of alternative energy in the poll question.

Ethanol is the only commercially viable alternative to oil today, pointed out Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol. The alternative fuel is growing in supply and is more efficient, cost-effective and clean than oil. “I wouldn’t quarrel with those that want to drill for more fossil fuel in the U.S., but it is important for the American people to understand that the days of ‘easy oil’ are over,” he said. “In other words, future oil supplies, whether drilled offshore or inland, are going to be more difficult to reach, more expensive to drill and refine, and more environmentally harmful.”

Growth Energy said that allowing the U.S. EPA to move forward with E15 would ease gas prices for consumers, create jobs for Americans and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.  “Every day, oil is getting costlier, riskier and dirtier to extract,” said Stephanie Dreyer, Growth Energy public affairs associate. “Before we resort to more, potentially dangerous drilling, we recommend first that we lift the artificial barriers that prevent more homegrown ethanol from entering the U.S. fuels market.”

"Drill, baby, drill is a bumper sticker, not an energy policy," said Matt Hartwig, communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association. "We need to encourage more investment and continued innovation in ethanol production to replace even greater quantities of oil.  The Earth only has so much oil.  Once its gone, that’s it.  We must begin to take the hard but necessary steps to give Americans more control over their energy future and that means investments in renewable fuel technologies like ethanol."