Polar bear protection in jeopardy

February 4, 2008 8:44:08 PM PST
The Bush administration is faced with an environmental decision: protect polar bears or allow new oil drilling in their habitat.

A decision to protect polar bears is being delayed by the Department of the Interior. At the same time another branch of that agency is going ahead with plans to sell oil and gas leases in a big part of the bear's habitat.

The Interior Department in Washington oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is tasked with protecting threatened and endangered species.

Polar bears have not yet been listed as either.

Consideration has been postponed while the Minerals Management Service, another branch of the Interior Department, is about to sell oil and gas leases in a 30-million acre area of the Chukchi Sea -- an area home to half of all the polar bears in the U.S., and 20-percent of all the polar bears in the world.

"As chairman of the environment committee in the senate I am very concern about what's happening," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D) California.

Senator Barbara Boxer told me she's troubled by the timing. She says it took a lawsuit to force Fish and Wildlife to consider putting polar bears on the endangered species list.

And now the agency is stalling.

"This is an example of why the public is so cynical toward this administration when it comes to the environment," said Boxer.

This past summer scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey reported a million square miles of the Arctic Sea ice disappeared -- six times the size of California. The melt was 23-percent greater than the previous record set in 2005.

Polar bears need the ice as a platform to hunt their primary food source: arctic seals.

But a NASA scientist has projected the summer Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in just four years, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research projects the arctic could be devoid of ice year round by 2040.

"Within the next fifty years or so, the population of polar bears could decline by approximately two-thirds," said USGS Wildlife biologist Steven Amstrup, Ph.D.

Stephen Amstrup is the USGS wildlife biologist leading the government's research on polar bears and one of the world's preeminent experts.

He testified before the House Select Committee on Energy Resources and Global Warming. Bay Area Congressman Jerry McNerney is a member of that committee, who believes the oil leases should wait.

"Once you get the leases obviously the legal issues are going to be a lot more complicated and there's no reason to complicate things when we know there is going to be a ruling pretty soon that's the question that doesn't make any sense," said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) Pleasanton.

I went to the Department of the Interior and requested interviews with head of both Fish and Wildlife and the Minerals Management Service.

Both agencies told me their directors were unavailable, and would be until after the scheduled date for the Chukchi lease sale.

But they both testified before the House Select Committee on Global Warming.

"The service determined that these activities do not threaten polar bears thought all of significant portion of their range," said Dale Hall from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Director of Fish and Wildlife Dale Hall told the committee that drilling in the Chukchi Sea would present a negligible threat to the polar bears.

Randall Luthi heads the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service that is scheduling the oil lease sale.

"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 wee that the polar bear is protected as well as other endangered species," said Randall Luthi from the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

But the governments own report on the sale lists the chances of an oil spill of a thousand barrels or more at somewhere between 30 and 50-percent.

Biologist Steven Amstrup says a spill that size would kill a lot of bears.

"They tend to groom themselves, they ingest the oil and the spills tend to have. Basically and mostly likely they're fatal," said Amstrup.

But the regional director of Minerals Management in Alaska testified the statistical chances of a spill are far below governments 30 to 50 percent estimate.

"Our goal is to prevent any spill from occurring and with our regulatory system what I'm saying is that we've been very successful in that in the last two decades or so," said Minerals Management Director John Goll.

The ranking Republican on the committee said the nation needs the estimated 15 billion barrels of oil that lie in the sea bed.

"The polar bear is simply become a political tool and that's a shame," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) Wisconsin.

But Congressman Edward Markey chairman of the House Committee believes the Bush Administration is more concerned about extraction than extinction.

"The tragedy is that the polar bear is going to be made much more vulnerable, its existence called much more into question because of the decision which the bush administration is imminently going to make," said Rep. Edward Markey (D) Massachusetts.

Chairman Markey has introduced legislation to postpone the lease sale until after the decision is made on listing the polar bears as threatened or endangered.

Senator Boxer has called on the Secretary of the Interior to step in and put the polar bears first. A coalition of environmental groups has filed suit in Federal Court, but the lease sale remains scheduled for Wednesday, February 6th.