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Polar bear habitat at center of Alaska drilling debate

One lawsuit aims to halt Wednesday's lease sales in the Chukchi Sea. Another would contest any listing of the polar bear as 'threatened.'

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"The bear currently receives regulatory protections even stricter than those available under the Endangered Species Act," MMS Director Randall Luthi wrote in a posting on his agency's website Friday. "No action is permitted that has more than a negligible impact on the bears. Should the bear be listed as a threatened species, all the [oil and gas] exploration and potential activities will only occur after meeting the regulatory requirements of that listing."

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Activists don't consider such assurances sufficient – not only regarding the eventual impact of climate change linked to greenhouse gases and fossil fuels but also more immediately with the dangers posed by oil and gas drilling in a marine environment.

"The MMS has admitted a substantial likelihood of oil spills in the Chukchi Sea," says Kristen Miller, legislative director for Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups suing to stop new drilling there. "There is no proven method to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic's broken sea ice, or even to reliably clean up a spill in open water."

The situation there puts the US Interior Department in the unusual position of considering protection for a species while at the same time offering industrial activity in that species' habitat.

Critics see this as a conflict of interest, especially because the decision on listing polar bears under the ESA by the Interior Department's Fish & Wildlife Service was delayed until the lease sale offering was to be made this week.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a government whistleblower organization, recently released internal government e-mails allegedly showing how MMS officials ignored the urgings of agency scientists in pressing for new oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea.

"I do not see how the MMS can pass the 'red face' test ... when polar bear issues which have been raised have been repeatedly and completely ignored by both [oil company] Shell and MMS," former agency biologist James Wilder wrote in one e-mail from January 2007.

Congress is also debating the issue.

In the Senate last week, John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts introduced legislation prohibiting any new drilling activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas until the polar bear is listed under the Endangered Species Act and critical habitat is designated.

"Before the government sells even more of their habitat off to big corporate interests, we need to know the full impact of further drilling, and we need to know whether this would push us past the tipping point and devastate the polar bear habitat," Senator Kerry said.