Environmental sleight of hand in the Arctic?
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So far, so good. Speaking to Reuters, Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, called the decision a "win." "I think they've responded to public interest in seeing that the area's protected, and it gives people who care about the place time to work on a permanent solution," he said.Skip to next paragraph
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But it turns out that Mr. Senner had deep reservations about the decision, which immediately reduced the protected area to 81 percent of the original, and in 10 years will reduce it to 28 percent. Speaking to Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly, Mr. Senner said that he saw some "sleight of hand" in the announcement.
"Basically, BLM has 'opened' the entire northeast National Petroleum Reserve – except the bed of Teshekpuk Lake – to oil and gas leasing, but then has 'deferred' leasing for 10 years on the wetlands north and east of the lake," Senner explained.
"The agency wants to move ahead with another lease sale in the fall, but they don't want it to get bogged down in the controversy of trying to lease formerly closed areas around the lake."
As Mr. Connelly sees it, "The Bush administration simply gave back protection that it had already lifted."
A similar slipperiness was on display last Wednesday, when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that he would be listing polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act – the first species to be listed due to global warming. But along with the ruling, he issued a special order asserting that the ESA cannot be used to address climate change. Additionally, he invoked a "4(d) rule," allowing oil and gas companies to continue to drill in the bears' habitats.
Kempthorne, an avowed critic of the Endangered Species Act, described the listing of the bears as dictated by the "inflexible" law. He then demonstrated his own political flexibility by announcing a series of administrative measures. The rule changes will give oil and gas companies unfettered access to drill in the bears' Arctic backyard while providing no real protection to the animals, whose ice floe hunting grounds are literally melting under their paws.
These decisions by the Interior Department indicate that the Bush administration is concerned about its environmental image (take the bizarre 2007 memo concerning the conditions under which government scientists can mention polar bears). That's a long way from Bush's first few months in office, when he openly rejected the Kyoto Protocol and withdrew standards for arsenic in drinking water. These days, the president, along with most national political figures, is at least paying lip-service to the environment. But, as always, the devil is in the details.