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FAIRBANKS - U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said listing polar bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act could block development of an Alaska natural gas pipeline.
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Stevens, R-Alaska, said a listing would affect oil and gas leasing on Alaska's North Slope and possibly offshore and even block the proposed pipeline, a mega-project many Alaskans hope will be the state's next big boom.
"If the polar bear is listed, its habitat will be subject to new criteria as far as any development, and the major development being considered today in the polar bear habitat is the Alaska gas pipeline," Stevens said.
Stevens described the listing as unnecessary, backed largely by environmentalists bent on blocking development projects.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced it would miss a deadline Wednesday for a decision on listing the polar bear as threatened. Director Dale Hall said he hoped the agency would be able to forward a recommendation to the Interior Department secretary within weeks so a decision can be made within a month.
Environmental groups Wed-nesday gave notice that they will sue the federal government to force a decision. A lawsuit can be filed 60 days after notice is given and sooner if a species requires emergency protection.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace almost three years ago submitted a petition seeking to list polar bears as threatened because of habitat loss due to global warming. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed the listing a year ago, citing thinning sea ice as a major problem for the animals and expressing concern that polar bear habitat may be melting.
"Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The "threatened" listing proposed for polar bears is one step below, a category that means a species is likely to become endangered.
Polar bears are considered marine mammals because they spend most of their lives on sea ice. They use ice to hunt their main prey, ringed seals.
Summer 2007 set a record low for sea ice in the Arctic with just 1.65 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, nearly 40 percent less ice than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.
A U.S. Geological Survey report in September concluded that two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including the entire population in Alaska, will be killed off by 2050 because of thinning sea ice from global warming in the Arctic.
Stevens made his comments during and after meeting of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce natural resources committee.
Listing the species as "threatened" or "endangered" would make the polar bear's habitat subject to special protection and could add a base for litigation aimed at halting development projects, Stevens said. It would affect leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and could affect development off Alaska's northern shore.
A listing relating to a loss of habitat driven by climate change could ultimately impose restrictions on any activity that produced greenhouse gases, he said.
Stevens downplayed the role of human activities in climate change but said it was critical to invest heavily in the development of renewable energy projects to reduce the amount of money the country was spending on foreign oil. He said he was trying to build support in Congress for a plan to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling with the stipulation that federal revenues from development there go toward renewable energy projects.
He also stressed the need for projects in Alaska that could demonstrate the feasibility of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas, because of the huge coal reserves in Alaska.