Panel questions delay on polar bear ruling

This year’s battle between Democrats and President Bush over global warming and the future of fossil fuels is starting with the polar bear.

Democrats on a House panel Thursday urged the administration to delay an oil lease sale off the coast of Alaska until the Interior Department determines if the polar bear is entitled to protections under the Endangered Species Act.

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Environmental groups have pushed for listing the polar bear as endangered due to a loss of habitat, as more than 20 percent of the Arctic ice sheets where polar bears live have melted in recent years. Listing the polar bear as endangered could make it more difficult for oil companies to drill off Alaska.

As much as two-thirds of the polar bear population may be lost by 2050 because of a loss of habitat due to global warming, Steven Amstrup, polar bear team leader at the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, a panel created last year at the behest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The Interior Department this month delayed its decision on listing the polar bear as endangered. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the panel Thursday that he believed his staff needed more time to review the 600,000 comments it received during the past year.

The decision is not as straightforward as others have been because the ruling is the first in which global warming is thought to be the cause of the population decline. A cause-and-effect relationship is more difficult to make in this instance than it would be in determining, for example, whether overhunting was responsible for a species decline.

But panel Democrats worry the administration is delaying the polar bear ruling so that the decision will not complicate plans to open the Chukchi Sea in Alaska for oil leases for the first time.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the panel’s chairman, plans to introduce a bill to delay the oil lease sale until after the polar bear ruling is finalized.

“This is an important moment for [Interior] Secretary [Dirk] Kempthorne,” Markey said.

Democrats pressed Hall and Randall Luthi, director of the Mineral Management Service, on whether drilling in the Chukchi Sea, home to a significant number of polar bears, would further stress the bear population.

Both said no, and Luthi stressed that the fuel expected from the sale will be critical to help meet the country’s future energy needs.

Luthi added that existing laws provide sufficient environmental safeguards to feel confident that drilling would not harm the polar bear population. But in response to a question, Luthi acknowledged that an endangered species distinction would require another layer of governmental review.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) questioned the determination that drilling posed little threat. He read from an environmental impact statement written as part of the lease review process. It noted the likelihood of an oil spill was as high as 50 percent.

Luthi said, however, that modern drilling techniques made a major spill unlikely.

Amstrup, the polar bear expert, said the effect on the population in Chukchi Sea would depend on a variety of factors, like the size of the spill and the direction of sea currents. But a large spill could potentially be devastating, he said.

“Polar bears do not do very well when they get into oil,” Amstrup said.