With polar bear study open for comments, critics see effort to push drilling in ANWR

With polar bear study open for comments, critics see effort to push drilling in ANWR
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A decision by the Department of the Interior to open up comments on a scientific study looking at how polar bears are impacted by oil and gas activity is raising questions from observers who say the department may be looking to undermine any opposition to drilling in protected Alaskan wilderness.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) posted the study to the Federal Register Tuesday, inviting comment on peer-reviewed research looking at how seismic activity from the oil and gas industry affects polar bear “denning” as they raise their young cubs.

But experts say it’s highly unusual for any branch of Interior to post one scientific study for comment rather than a body of peer-reviewed research that accompanies a policy decision.

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“What it looks like to me is they’re giving industry the opportunity to negate the study,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The study comes as Interior is pushing to open drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), something the House has tried to block

“What is it you want the public to say about the peer-reviewed study — are they going to peer review it better than the peer reviewers? You don't normally open up an avenue like this unless you’re waiting for special interest groups to jump in,” Rosenberg told The Hill. “This is a very directed way to undermine the science.”

The FWS said posting a study for comment is unusual but is part of a new effort to increase transparency. 

“This is not something we have typically done in the past that I am aware of, but we are always looking for new ways to be transparent and keep the public informed about the new and often innovative science taking place across the Service,” Gavin Shire, spokesman for the FWS, said in a statement to The Hill. “This notice is a way for us to make the public aware of the study and receive [its] feedback on how we might apply the model in the field.”

Conservation group Defenders of Wildlife said research has already made clear that any oil development on the coastal plain of ANWR is environmentally inappropriate and is a particularly risky proposition for Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears.

“With 900 or fewer of these animals left, the survival of every single polar bear is crucial to sustaining this imperiled population," the group’s president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, said in a statement. "Given the precipitous decline of polar bears, we simply can’t afford the death of a single bear to fossil fuel development."