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Polar Bear Gets Threatened Status Because of Warming

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Polar bears look for food along the coastline of Alaska in this undated handout photo. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Bloomberg News

Bloomberg: Polar Bear Gets Threatened Status Because of Warming

By Adam Satariano

May 14 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. declared the polar bear a threatened species, giving protected status for the first time to an animal because of global warming while also including provisions to ensure continued oil and gas development.

The carnivore, which hunts on ice sheets that are shrinking because of higher Arctic temperatures, joins more than 1,200 species in the U.S. classified as threatened or endangered with extinction. The ruling, announced by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne at a Washington news conference, acknowledges the climate threat without complicating plans for Alaskan oil and gas drilling, he said.

The decision includes guidelines to make sure the Endangered Species Act isn’t used as a “`back door” way to regulate greenhouse gases, said Kempthorne. The stipulations “ensure the protection of the bear while allowing us to continue to develop our natural resources in the Arctic region in an environmentally sound way,” he said.

By listing the polar bear as a threatened species while also including provisions that the ruling can’t be used to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, the decision drew criticism from both sides of the climate change debate.

“The administration seems to be balancing two separate concerns,” said Roger Martella, general counsel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency until earlier this year. “The first is the health of the polar bear. The second concern is the use of the Endangered Species Act as a tool to halt projects across the entire United States.”

Criticism

The administration plans to apply another animal standard, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to the polar bear, which may mean no changes for companies seeking energy-exploration permits, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall.

Environmental groups denounced the decision and vowed to challenge the accompanying stipulations in court. Oil and gas industry representatives said the designation for the polar bears is unnecessary and will lead to lawsuits.

“The administration’s decision is riddled with loopholes, caveats and backhanded language that could actually undermine protections for the polar bear and other species,” said Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club.

Environmental groups have said they will use a polar bear designation to challenge developments including coal-fired power plants located thousands of miles from polar bears, because the plants emit heat-trapping gases linked to melting Arctic ice.

Oil and Gas

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, which represents 17 oil companies that do business in the state, expects environmental groups to sue to block Arctic oil exploration, said Marilyn Crockett, the group’s executive director.

“We are very disappointed,” she said.

Other oil and gas industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, also have opposed the protections, saying the polar bear population is at historically normal levels and a decision shouldn’t be based on projections.

The U.S. Geological Survey said in September that continued ice melt would cause the loss of about two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by mid-century. Their population is estimated to be 22,000 to 25,000, with about 60 percent living in Canada. Alaska is the only area in the U.S. with the yellowish-white animal, which feeds largely on seals.

The ruling also affects polar bear hunting by prohibiting the importation of skins from hunts in Canada to make rugs or life-size mounts, Hall said.

Judge’s Order

After delaying the decision four months, the U.S. Interior Department was ordered by a federal judge to rule by May 15 whether the polar bear should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the listing underscores the need for national legislation to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions linked to climate change.

“While the listing itself is welcome news, I am deeply concerned that the administration’s plan will deny the polar bear some of the key protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Boxer, a California Democrat.

Endangered species are those that show evidence they may become extinct. Animals classified as threatened species are likely to become endangered “within the foreseeable future,” according to the Endangered Species Act.

Lease Sale

Environmental groups sued the Bush administration to force a ruling after a Jan. 9 deadline was missed. They had criticized the postponement as an effort to open more areas to oil and natural-gas drilling, specifically in Alaska’sChukchi Sea.

The lease sale held Feb. 6 involves an area that may yield 15 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the U.S. Minerals Management Service said. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the world’s second-largest oil company, was the biggest bidder, offering $2.1 billion for rights in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said it’s “too early to tell” how the listing may effect its operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Chevron Corp. spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said the ruling will have no impact on its operations, which are in southern Alaska.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to protect a species’ critical habitat and to implement a population recovery plan. Kempthorne said he wants to be sure the listing isn’t “abused to make global warming policies.”

“This listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting,” Kempthorne said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it received more than 650,000 public comments on the proposed polar bear listing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Satariano in San Francisco at[email protected]

Last Updated: May 14, 2008 21:10 EDT

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