Alaska Oil Drilling and the Polar Bear
A decision on whether to protect Alaska’s polar bears under the Endangered Species Act may not come before the government opens a major bear habitat to oil leases next week, though staff recommendations are completed, the chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday. H. Dale Hall, the agency’s director, faced sharp criticism at a Senate hearing from lawmakers who accused the Interior Department of stalling to make it easier for oil companies to obtain drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, where a fifth of the Arctic’s polar bears depend on sea ice in their hunt for food.
Another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, plans to open a large area of the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas leases Feb. 6.
The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations, and scientists say global warming is causing serious melting of Arctic sea ice, the bear’s primary habitat. The department proposed the possibility of listing the bear as threatened — triggering greater federal protection — more than a year ago. The decision could have broad implications because protecting the bear’s habitat could mean finding ways to reduce ice melting.
Hall said he could not promise a decision before Feb. 6, only that a recommendation on the bear will be sent to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne “in the very near future.”
A federal decision on listing the polar bear as endangered won’t come before drilling begins.