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Which Comes First? The Oil or the Bears?

Polar bear hearing panelistsAccording to Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA.), the fate of the polar bear now lies in the hands of Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. In a contentious Thursday morning hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Committee Chairman Markey pressured Interior Department officials to rearrange the Department’s rulemaking procedures. The issue: whether or not the Interior Department will grant legal protection to polar bears before making a decision to allow drilling in one of the most sensitive polar bear habitats, Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.

In front of an enthusiastic audience which included an activist wearing a polar bear costume, the hearing brought together several evocative symbols of the current debate over America’s energy future: oil drills, potential oil spills, shrinking sea ice, partisan conflicts over scientific uncertainty, and of course, polar bears. The first of two panels at the hearing included Dale Hall, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and Dr. Steven Amstrup, Polar Bear Team Leader at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed a decision on whether to list the polar bear as “threatened” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. In fact, the Service risks missing an approaching statutory deadline to list the polar bear under the Act. Meanwhile, the Minerals Management Service is scheduled to sell oil drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea on February 6.

Dr. Amstrup warned the Committee that oil drilling-related accidents in the Chukchi region could threaten polar bear populations. “They groom themselves, they ingest the oil, and the results are usually fatal,” said Amstrup. Oil poisoning due to spills and melting sea ice due to rising temperatures are separate threats to polar bears—but both linked to carbon-intensive energy production.

“The decision making-process,” said Markey, “should occur in the proper sequence.” Markey is now introducing a bill which plainly prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from “selling any oil and gas lease for any tract” in the Chukchi region “until the Secretary determines whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species or an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.” The bill expands the window of opportunity for the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the polar bear, and avoid preemption by the Minerals and Management Service. The fate of the polar bear may be uncertain, but prioritizing conservation decisions before that fate is sealed would set a proper precedent for planetary stewardship.

Image credit: Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
Left to right: John Goll, Randall Luthi, Dale Hall, Steven Amstrup

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