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The Oil-Soaked Are Least Likely to Favor Regulation

Fear of unemployment leads places blighted by oil or coal to hold on all the tighter to those industries.
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One of the big oddities to come out of the Gulf oil spill has been this quirk of public-opinion polling: Residents along the coast overwhelmingly say their communities have been hurt by the disaster, but they're also among the least likely people in the country to support a moratorium on offshore drilling.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll this week reiterated the theme on the heels of President Obama's second attempt to impose a moratorium. It found that 79 percent of people in the most affected counties along the coast labeled the spill a "major disaster," with 75 percent saying it has hurt their local economies. (33 percent even find themselves, as a result, feeling "depressed.")

But in Louisiana, 72 percent of people are against Obama's six-month ban on offshore drilling. That's compared to 39 percent among the U.S. population at-large.

So why are all of these people most affected by the spill still opposed to regulation of the practice that caused it?

New research published in the latest issue of Rural Sociology may help us understand. The study, "Place Effects on Environmental Views," was conducted before the BP spill and in rural areas throughout the country, but it hints at one place-specific factor relevant to the Gulf Coast and similar coal-country communities resistant to environmental regulation.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

The factor? Unemployment.

Most research and public-opinion data on attitudes toward environmental regulation has focused on more common considerations like political affiliation, gender and age. The authors of this study propose that where you live is important, too, as a reflection of key factors like local unemployment, population growth and decline, and available resources.

"We show that even if you adjust for 10 different individual factors, still place matters," said University of New Hampshire sociologist Lawrence Hamilton, the study's lead author.

Some places — and not just political parties or age cohorts — are more likely than others to disapprove of environmental regulation. This includes rural communities with high unemployment, particularly where conservation has been framed as the enemy of jobs — and where, in other words, the polluters are largely the employers. (Conversely, Hamilton points out that conservation creates the jobs in tourism-heavy regions like the western slopes of Colorado.)

In Louisiana, that impulse to protect employment may be outweighing even the damage of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The researchers are next planning a Gulf-specific study to test the idea.

"This is really what we want to study," Hamilton said. "My hypothesis going in is that you have very different attitudes in communities in Louisiana that have a high investment in the oil industry, compared with communities in Florida where people have moved there largely for the beaches, the water, the lifestyle, the outdoors — so that people in those two different places would see both economic and other kinds of values very differently."

The notion that place matters is not surprising. But it hasn't been thoroughly studied before, in part because designing place-specific research (wherein the differences between the places, and not just the people, can be measured) is more complex than simply conducting a national survey.

The basic idea also gives way to more complex questions. For one: Are some communities so concerned about unemployment that no spill is large enough, or no mine pollution costly enough, to warrant new environmental rules?