FAIRBANKS - A new national poll indicates increasing public support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but drilling opponents say the numbers are the result of a biased survey.
A Republican National Committee poll released by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski projected that 63 percent of Americans favor oil drilling in ANWR, a higher number than in most previous polls.
Murkowski predicted the new results will stand up to scrutiny and would put more pressure on swing senators to vote for ANWR development next year.
"Let's watch to see if there's another Democratic poll to counter it," he said.
The RNC poll follows a few others that also claimed to document growing support for drilling.
The Wilderness Society, however, found the numbers nearly reversed in a poll it conducted in early October, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. And the Gallup Poll last month said drilling opponents outnumbered supporters by 7 percentage points. The Wilderness Society's poll was conducted by a partnership of The Mellman Group, which generally works for Democrats in political polling, and Bellwether Research, which does the same for Republicans.
In late November, the companies criticized the other polls and defending theirs and the Gallup survey.
"The recent surveys which purport to show support for drilling since Sept. 11 are, without exception, so fundamentally flawed in design and so transparent in their biased question wording that they do not merit serious considerations as true measures of public opinion and should be regarded mainly as lobbying tools," Mellman and Bellwether wrote in a memo to The Wilderness Society.
But Kim Duke, executive director of the pro-drilling group Arctic Power in Anchorage, said the latest RNC poll asked a question designed to gain information rather than advantage.
The RNC pollsters, Public Opinion Strategies, asked: "And thinking about drilling for oil in the Alaska Arctic Wildlife Refuge, some people say we are too dependent on foreign oil and that we should drill for our own oil in Alaska. Other people say that oil exploration will damage the wildlife in Alaska and should not be allowed. Which one of those is closer to your opinion?"
About 63 percent of the 800 respondents nationwide said they favored ANWR drilling. About 33 percent rejected drilling.
"The fact that it was worded that way and we have that large of a portion saying 'yes' shows that people are more comfortable with drilling," Duke said.
Peter Rafle, communications director for The Wilderness Society, said the RNC question makes an illegitimate connection between ANWR and a reduction in oil imports.
"The implication of that question is if we drill it will free us from foreign oil, versus not drilling to protect some unspecified wildlife value," Rafle said. "If you frame it that way, it's not surprising that people are interested in our energy independence. But what we've found is that when you talk to people about alternatives, ... that there is extremely strong support for that and most people think that is a better response than drilling in the Arctic refuge."