Alaska editorial: New president, same old polar bear policy

Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2009

When the Bush administration announced last year that it would not allow the polar bear's new "threatened" status to add another layer of rules on the North Slope oil industry's already well-regulated interaction with the bears, many pundits trumpeted it as another example of Bush's alleged disregard for the environment.

The sneering came in the midst of a national presidential campaign in which the election of Barack Obama was portrayed as an antidote to such supposedly anti-scientific, politicized behavior on the part of Republicans.

On Friday, the Obama administration announced it will uphold the Bush administration's polar bear policy. That's because the policy makes sense, as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar understood once he was able to review it outside the political fray.

The previous administration's polar bear policy had several parts.

First, former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne declared the polar bear "threatened" under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. While there were good reasons to question that assertion, Kempthorne felt obligated to respond to what the scientific modeling suggested would happen. He was under court order to make a ruling.

In announcing the decision, though, Kempthorne said he would issue a rule under Section 4(d) of the ESA so the federal government would not have to duplicate protections for the polar bear that were already in place under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As explained in the rule, and as Kempthorne said in his news conference last year, the MMPA protections are actually stronger than those ESA.

And the MMPA rules have worked. As the department noted, "since 1991, when the incidental take regulations became effective in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, there has been no known instance of a polar bear being killed or of personnel being injured by a bear as a result of oil and gas industry activities."

Few people seemed to hear or understand that statement at the time.

Nevertheless, Kempthorne's view was validated last week by Salazar's continuation of the rule.

Salazar also reaffirmed Kempthorne's determination that the ESA doesn't require more federal approvals for North Slope activities that produce greenhouse gases, which are considered responsible for warming the polar bears' icy habitat and threatening their existence.

"There is currently no way to determine how the emissions from a specific project under consultation both influence climate change and then subsequently affect specific listed species or critical habitat, including polar bears," the department concluded last year.

Nothing has changed that obstacle, not even an election.

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