WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will retain a Bush-era rule for polar bears, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Friday, in a move that angered activists who noted the rule limits what can be done to protect the species from global warming.
The administration had faced a weekend deadline to decide whether it should allow government agencies to cite the federal Endangered Species Act, which protects the bear, to impose limits on greenhouse gases from power plants, factories and automobiles even if the emissions occur thousands of miles from where the polar bear lives.
"We must do all we can to help the polar bear recover, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change," Salazar said in a statement. "However, the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation’s carbon emissions.
"Instead, we need a comprehensive energy and climate strategy that curbs climate change and its impacts – including the loss of sea ice," he added. "Both President Obama and I are committed to achieving that goal."
Court action vowed
Environmentalists vowed to contest the rule in court.
"We need to use every tool at our disposal, including the Endangered Species Act," Andrew Wetzler, wildlife conservation director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "The rule endorsed today is illegal, and we will continue to fight it in court."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also protested the decision not to use the act to require emissions cuts. "Monitoring the situation will not tell us more than we know now – that the polar bear is threatened and we need to act," she said in a statement.
The species law that affords protection for plants, animals and fish that face possible extinction became entangled with the need to reduce pollution linked to global warming more than a year ago. The Interior Department during the Bush administration declared the polar bear a threatened species, citing the decline of Arctic sea ice due to global warming.
Fearful that the declaration putting the bear under the federal species law might be used to force regulation of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels, the Bush administration issued a special rule: No action outside of the bear's Arctic habitat could be considered as endangering its survival.
The limitation, hailed by business groups, prompted lawsuits from environmentalists and action by Congress.
In March, federal lawmakers authorized Salazar to rescind the Bush administration's special rule, thus avoiding any complicated and time-consuming regulatory procedures. The deadline for such action was Saturday, 60 days after Congress acted.
Environmentalists complained last week when Salazar failed to address the polar bear rule when he rescinded another Bush regulation involving endangered species consultation — one Congress also authorized to be scrapped.
"From our perspective the job is half done" without a reversal of the polar bear rule, Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, said after last week's action.
The special rule "significantly undercuts protections for the polar bear by omitting global warming pollution as a factor in the polar bear's risk of extinction," said Jane Kochersperger, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, which delivered 80,000 petitions to the Interior Department after they were collected by the two environmental groups.
Environmentalists also circulated a letter to Salazar, signed by 49 law professors, that urged him to reverse the Bush rule, arguing that its restrictions are so broad as to be illegal under the Endangered Species Act.
Business groups had expressed concern about the Endangered Species Act being used to regulate greenhouse gases, especially industrial and power plant emissions.
On Thursday, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, urged Salazar to keep the Bush rule in place.
Along with the recent ruling by the Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide is a health hazard, "withdrawing this rule would give the federal government vast new climate change power to regulate any federal or federally permitted activity in our country that emits greenhouse gases," said Hastings. "This reaches far beyond the scope of polar bears in the Arctic and could put jobs and economic activity across the entire nation at risk."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.