White House defends Chuckchi Sea oil lease

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is weeks away from a decision that most likely will designate polar bears as a threatened species, but it said Thursday that it won't budge on issuing new oil and gas leases in their shrinking Alaska habitat.

U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service's Alaska Image Library
U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service's Alaska Image Library

A House of Representatives committee on global warming called on the Interior Department to hold off auctioning oil and gas leases in northwest Alaska's Chuckchi Sea until the department decides whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed the decision last week for at least another 30 days, and a ruling isn't expected before the Feb. 6 oil and gas lease sale by the Minerals Management Service. The agency estimates that the Chuckchi Sea holds 15 billion barrels of oil and as much as 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

"Every time there is a choice between extinction and extraction in this administration, extraction wins," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "This must not be the case for the polar bear."

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have said that restricting oil and gas development or the subsistence hunting of polar bears wouldn't be enough to prevent population declines. The directors of both Fish and Wildlife and Minerals Management reiterated that finding on Thursday. All three agencies are within the Interior Department.

"We wouldn't be proceeding with this sale if we weren't comfortable that we had enough knowledge, enough data to say that we can adequately see that the polar bear is protected ... if the department makes a decision to list the polar bear," said Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service. "I'm serious about seeing that we do this right, and I believe we are doing it right."

But officials acknowledge that climate change has led to the loss of vast expanses of polar sea ice, which the bears need.

"We need to be doing something about climate change starting yesterday," said Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "There needs to be a serious effort to try to control greenhouse gases, which is probably the only thing we have control over."

Polar bears are considered marine mammals because they depend on sea ice for hunting seals, but they den on land. As sea ice has retreated, polar bears must swim farther and expend more energy to reach it.

A U.S. Geological Survey study issued this summer found that in the next 50 years, shrinking sea ice will leave only a small population of polar bears in the islands of the Canadian Arctic. Two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including those along the coasts of Alaska and Russia, are projected to disappear. One-fifth of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world live on the coast of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

If polar bears are listed as threatened, it will be the first time that a species is placed on the endangered list because of the threat of global warming to its habitat.

WASHINGTON - The directors of two Interior Department agencies said Thursday they're confident oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska can proceed without threatening polar bears that depend on the sea ice.

The officials appeared before the House special committee on global warming that is examining why the department is postponing a decision on whether to further protect the bear, at the same time it is proceeding with oil lease sales in the Alaska sea.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the committee's ranking Republican, said while "there may be a problem with the polar bear population" he is convinced that oil and gas development and bear protection can coincide.

"This process is going along fairly well," he said.

Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, which is conducting the oil lease sales, said the bear already is adequately protected against harm from oil and gas development under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And he said the lease sales include provisions to mitigate the impact on the bear.

"We believe adequate protection exists," said Luthi.

courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

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