Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Activists dressed as polar bears were at a House hearing Thursday where Interior Department officials Randall Luthi, left, and Dale Hall, center, testified that drilling in the Chukchi Sea shouldn't harm the species. staff and news service reports
updated 1/17/2008 2:59:54 PM ET 2008-01-17T19:59:54

Two Bush administration officials insisted Thursday that oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska can proceed without threatening polar bears that depend on the sea ice. But that didn't convince a senior House lawmaker, who demanded that Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne delay the oil leases until after a determination is made on whether to list polar bears as endangered or threatened.

The two officials appeared before the House Special Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which examined why the Interior Department is postponing the listing decision at the same time it is proceeding with the oil lease sales.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the committee chairman, described their testimony as an "abandonment of common sense" and asked for assurance that the decision on whether to list the bear under the Endangered Species Act will be made before the Feb. 6 scheduled oil lease sales.

"If this is not fixed," Markey said, "it is Mr. Kempthorne who is to blame," adding that "in the end man can adapt, but the bear cannot."

Markey vowed to introduce legislation seeking to block the lease sales should Kempthorne refuse.

What's the harm in delaying the lease sale a few weeks, Markey added, when either way developing oil offshore would take years.

Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino told that no formal request had yet arrived at the agency, but if it does "we'll take his concerns into consideration."

As things stand now, Paolino said, "we still intend to continue" with the lease sales "as approved by Congress" last year.

Delay supporters, critics
Conservation groups such as the Sierra Club backed Markey's proposal.

"It doesn’t make sense to open prime polar bear habitat to oil drilling when the animal is under consideration for federal protection," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement. "It’s like locking your car doors and leaving all the windows down."

But Markey has his critics as well.

"The push to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act is not really about protecting wildlife," Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a statement. "Rather, the goal is to implement regulatory controls on energy use that global warming alarmists have failed to convince Congress to enact."

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne last January had proposed listing polar bears as threatened, and the Endangered Species Act calls for a final decision one year later.

But on Jan. 9, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall postponed the listing decisions. He told the committee that he could not assure the listing would be decided before the lease sale.

"It's not just making the decision, it's making it clear and why," said Hall, adding that more time is needed to examine 600,000 public comments on the issue.

Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, which is conducting the oil lease sales, said the bear already is adequately protected against harm from oil and gas development under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

And he said the lease sales include provisions to mitigate the impact on the bear. "We believe adequate protection exists," said Luthi, noting that the sea is believed to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Image: Chukchi Sea

Tricky policy decision
The decision on whether to declare the polar bear threatened under the Endangered Species Act is one of the most complex decisions facing the department. For the first time it links a specific animal's protection with the impacts of global warming.

"Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. "Threatened" is one step less serious, a category that means a species is likely to become endangered.

Listing polar bears as threatened could trigger limits on development, particularly oil and gas exploration and production, that could harm the animals.

Polar bears are especially vulnerable to global warming because they spend most of their lives on sea ice.

Summer 2007 set a record low for sea ice in the Arctic with just 1.65 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. That's nearly 40 percent less ice than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.

Last September, the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that two-thirds of the polar bears would disappear because of shrinking sea ice by mid-century if steps are not taken to curtail global warming.

The study cited the Chuckchi Sea habitat as one of the polar bear population centers considered under the “greatest” threat because sea ice is receding as a result of global warming.

Dr. Steven Amstrup, a polar bear expert for the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department's science arm, told the committee that researchers "expect that those negative impacts will continue."

Hall agreed. Warming "impacts are coming from everywhere" in the Arctic. "We know the (polar bear) habitat is leaving ... we've lost 20 percent of the ice since the '70s."

Hearing focused on oil impact
Thursday's hearing focused not on warming but on the potential impact of oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea on the bears.

If oil and gas development is allowed "we will be accelerating the day when the polar bear will be extinct," said Markey, suggesting that drilling — including the possibility of an oil spill — could be devastating for the bear.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the committee's ranking Republican, said while "there may be a problem with the polar bear population" he is convinced that oil and gas development and bear protection can coincide.

"This process is going along fairly well," he said.

Luthi said the agency has reduced the size of the area open for leasing and will have other mitigating requirements to protect the bear.

He said even if the leases are issued before a decision is made on the bear, future listing will have to be taken into account when oil companies seek exploration and development permits.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., told Luthi he was not convinced by his assurances. Inslee said his agency's own environmental review of the lease sales concluded a 33 percent to nearly 50 percent chance of an oil spill in the Chukchi Sea.

Luthi promised requirements that would reduce those risks.

Amstrup said if there is an oil spill, the effect on bears would be significant.

"The polar bears do not do well when they get into oil ... they tend to groom themselves," Amstrup told the committee. "Basically," he added, such scenarios "are fatal."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Polar bear protesters


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