Long-tailed ducks fly along a barrier island outside Kaktovik, Alaska, on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Long-tailed ducks fly along a barrier island outside Kaktovik, Alaska, on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The Trump administration has finalized plans to open the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling for the first time. The decision caps decades of efforts by oil and gas companies and some Alaska leaders to allow drilling in the wilderness area, even as environmental activists warn that allowing it could threaten polar bears and other wildlife. Drilling opponents are expected to challenge the administration’s plans in court.

As the debate resurfaces over drilling in the wildlife refuge – the largest in the country – here are some facts about Americans’ views of expanded oil and gas drilling, as well as how the public sees government efforts to protect wildlife and open lands. The analysis also includes data on how oil and gas production in the United States has changed in recent years. All findings are drawn from previously published Pew Research Center surveys and studies.

  • In a spring 2020 survey, 79% of U.S. adults said the more important priority for addressing the country’s energy supply should be to develop alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. Just one-in-five adults said the more important priority should be to expand the production of oil, coal and natural gas. 

  • In the same survey, majorities in both partisan coalitions said the bigger priority should be to develop alternative energy sources, rather than expand the production of oil, coal and natural gas. Around two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65%) said this, as did around nine-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (91%). When taking ideology into account, a little over half of self-described conservative Republicans (54%) said they favored the development of alternative energy sources over the expanded production of fossil fuels, compared with nearly all self-described liberal Democrats (97%).
  • Around six-in-ten U.S. adults (62%) said in the spring 2020 survey that the federal government is doing too little to protect animals and their habitats, while a little over half (54%) said the same about the government’s efforts to protect open lands in national parks. Majorities said the government is doing too little in several other areas related to the environment, too, such as protecting water and air quality.
  • Across all five of the environmental actions asked about in the spring survey, Democrats and Democratic leaners were much more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say the federal government is doing too little. For example, around eight-in-ten Democrats (81%) said the government is too doing little to protect animals and their habitats, compared with 39% of Republicans. And while three-quarters of Democrats said the government is not doing enough to protect open lands in national parks, just 29% of Republicans said the same. Partisan gaps on these questions have been wide since 2018.
Younger Republicans prioritize alternative energy sources more than older Republicans

  • Republicans differ by generation when it comes to oil and gas production, as well as government efforts to help the environment. Millennial and Gen Z Republicans are more likely than Baby Boomer and older Republicans to favor prioritizing alternative energy sources over fossil fuels, according to a June analysis by the Center. They are also more likely than their older GOP counterparts to say the federal government is doing too little when it comes to protecting animals and their habitats, protecting open lands in national parks, and taking other environmental steps. Even so, Millennial and Gen Z Republicans remain less likely than Democrats overall to favor the production of alternative energy sources over fossil fuels and to see government efforts to protect animal habitats and open lands in national parks as insufficient. 

  • The decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comes amid a long-term increase in domestic oil and gas production, according to a January 2020 analysis. Through the first 10 months of 2019, the U.S. pumped nearly 3.7 billion barrels of crude oil, more than 2 billion more than in the same period in 2009, according to the analysis, which was based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas production, meanwhile, soared from 21.7 trillion cubic feet in the first nine months of 2009 to 33.6 trillion in the same period a decade later.
Since 2000, U.S. solar energy production has spiked, coal production has declined
John Gramlich  is a senior writer/editor at Pew Research Center.