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.'

steve amstrup/ap/u.s. fish and wildlife service/file
On thin ice: Environmentalists say polar bears like these in northern Alaska will be in danger if the US allows sales of new drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, set to begin Wednesday.

The political fight over offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska intensifies this week.

Native Alaskans and environmentalists have filed a suit to prevent the federal government's sale of drilling leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. The sales, set to begin Wednesday, will allow drilling in about 30 million acres, including critical polar bear habitat, environmentalists say. A decision on whether to list polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is expected this week as well.

The potential designation has left the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm, poised to challenge "any arbitrary, unjustified ESA listing" of the iconic Arctic bear, setting up a likely court battle. Property-rights advocates and business groups have been weighing in as well.

Researchers differing over the impact of climate change also affects the debate. Hundreds of prominent scientists are urging Congress to pass legislation that would curb global warming in order to protect wildlife, including polar bears. But other experts say the data used to bolster the argument for ESA listing – in particular computer modeling showing declines in polar bear populations because of climate change and other factors – are based on "questionable assumptions."

All of this is uncharted territory for government-ordered species protection, which typically is based on numbers dwindling toward extinction.

Polar bear populations in fact may be larger than they were decades ago. By some estimates there were as few as 5,000 polar bears in the 1950s when hunting for sport and profit was far less regulated. Today, scientists believe there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, though this is still about 60 percent below historic levels. And many scientists say the loss of Arctic sea ice, which bears rely on for hunting and denning, is accelerating to record levels due to global warming. As a result, US Geological Survey scientists recently warned that projected changes in sea-ice conditions could lead to the loss of about two-thirds of the world's polar bear population by midcentury.

"Global warming is already causing serious damage and disruptions to wildlife and ecosystems, and reliable projections call for significant additional damage and disruptions," more than 600 scientists warned in a letter to members of Congress last week.

Officials at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) say polar bears already are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"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."

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.

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