ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Soaring crude oil prices, which mean higher gasoline prices for motorists, are priming the pump for another run by Alaska's congressional delegation at trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
And that idea may be finding favor with the nation's consumers.
MSNBC's Internet news site last week posted a survey asking visitors if they think protected areas should be opened to oil drilling. The question appeared on a Web page containing news stories about the revived controversy over opening the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to drilling.
The issue arose March 8 when U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, seized upon the skyrocketing price of gasoline to introduce a bill that would permit drilling in what the oil industry regards as one of the most promising prospects in North America.
When word of the MSNBC survey began to spread, interest groups began sending mass e-mail alerts to their followers, urging them to log onto the Web site and cast their vote for or against.
''Yes, we need to end our dependency on foreign oil'' was one choice. Slightly more than half of the respondents were clicking on that.
''No, we can end our oil dependency by investing in alternative energy'' was the second choice, and slightly fewer than half of the respondents were clicking that way.
People who couldn't make up their minds clicked on ''can't decide.'' Only 2 percent of the respondents made that choice.
Joan Connell, executive producer for opinions at MSNBC in Redmond, Wash., said the results carry absolutely no weight.
''This is a self-selecting, nonscientific survey,'' she said. ''These are not scientific polls.''
Still, Connell said she was amazed that the question was drawing that volume of responses -- roughly three times what questions on most of the 400 or so other interactive story pages on the site might attract.
It may be because the broader issue, the high price of gasoline, is stirring a veritable digital storm, she said.
''What this means more than anything is enthusiasm, or depth of feeling,'' Connell told the Anchorage Daily News.
Frenzy is another word for it.
Pro-development forces who until two weeks ago thought they'd be sitting out another year without ANWR legislation coming before Congress suddenly not only had a bill, but they had a digital dogfight.
''I sent out e-mails to my board telling them what's on the Web site,'' said Cam Toohey, executive director of Arctic Power, the leading pro-development lobbying organization.
E-mails propagated throughout the nation as recipients retransmitted the message to others. Mike Heatwole, who works for the public relations firm of Bradley/Reid in Anchorage, said anyone who was anything probably knew about the MSNBC survey. He helped spread the word. Toohey said his group learned last year that a little get-out-the-vote elbow grease can turn the corner on a tough Internet vote. When a question popped up last year about whether the Interior Department should open the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil leasing, a digital poll was going down until the pro-drillers fired up their Web browsers.
''We sent out alerts, and the results turned around favorably,'' Toohey said. ''We've got a lot of computers.''
Environmentalists played down all the excitement.
''This is who can turn out more of their troops,'' said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League. ''We've done real polls, and they show overwhelming support for protecting the refuge.''
Recent polls done for The Wilderness Society by the polling firm of Lake, Snell and Perry in Florida, New Hampshire and Texas showed that about 70 percent of the respondents somewhat or strongly opposed the federal government's allowing private companies to drill for oil in the refuge, said Rindy O'Brien, vice president of the environmental group. That's not to say environmentalists would be above trying to manipulate the turnout in the MSNBC survey. In some instances, they didn't know anything about it.
The Wilderness Society's Alaska representative, Allen Smith, was stuck at the computer repair shop Friday, broken down on the information highway just as the speed was picking up.
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