The Bush administration on Wednesday declared the polar bear a threatened species, saying it must be protected because of the decline in Arctic sea ice from global warming. But activists were quick to criticize the ruling, saying it was full of loopholes.
Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited dramatic declines in sea ice over the last three decades and projections of continued losses. These declines, he told a news conference, mean the polar bear is a species likely to be in danger of extinction in the near future.
Kempthorne also said, though, that it would be "inappropriate" to use the protection of the bear to reduce greenhouse gases, or to broadly address climate change.
Reflecting views recently expressed by President Bush, Kempthorne said the Endangered Species Act was "never meant to regulate global climate change."
He said the decision to list the bear includes administrative actions aimed at limiting the impact of the decision on energy development and other climate related activities.
Rules 'compel me to list'
"While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting," he said at a briefing.
"Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective," Kempthorne said. He also noted he was taking administrative and regulatory action to ensure this decision is not "abused to make global warming policies."
Kempthorne said his administrative rule aims at defining the scope of the decision, and at "limiting the unintended harm to the society and the economy of the United States."
The Sierra Club was among the first conservation groups to criticize the approach, with Executive Director Carl Pope saying it was "riddled with loopholes, caveats, and backhanded language that could actually undermine protections for the polar bear and other species."
"The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court," added Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, and lead author of the 2005 petition that first triggered the Interior Department to study a listing.
Clayton Jernigan, an attorney for Earthjustice, said Kempthorne made clear steps would be taken to avoid interfering with offshore oil development in waters where bears and oil drilling are expected to coexist.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was among those who felt Kempthorne was essentially forced to issue the listing, but at least acted so "that opportunities to continue to explore and drill in Alaska will not be impacted."
In February, the Interior Department sold oil and gas rights across some 29.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast — including prime polar bear habitat — for a record $2.66 billion.
Bill Kovacs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also praised the administrative rule as a "common sense balancing" between environmental and business concerns.
Without the limiting regulations, Kovacs said, all carbon-emitters in the contiguous United States would have to go through a consultation process, which he said would have literally shut down federal activity overnight.
White House consulted
Kempthorne said he had consulted with the White House on the decision, but "at no time was there ever a suggestion that this was not my decision."
Kempthorne cited as support for his decision conclusions by the department's scientists that sea ice loss will likely result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century. The bear population across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland doubled from about 12,000 to 25,000 since 1960, but he noted that scientists now predict a significant population decline.
Notwithstanding the secretary's disclaimers, this is the first time the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by the impacts of global warming. There has been concern within the business community that such an action could have far-reaching impact and could be used to regulate carbon dioxide.
As part of the 2005 petition, Kempthorne proposed 15 months ago to investigate whether the polar bear should be declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That triggered a year of studies into the threats facing the bear and its survival prospects at a time when scientists predict a continuing warming and loss of Arctic sea ice. The Arctic sea ice serves as a primary habitat for the bear and is critical to its survival, scientists say.
A decision had been expected early this year, but the Interior Department said it needed more time to work out many of the details, prompting criticism from members of Congress and environmentalists.
Environmentalists filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing a decision and a federal court on April 29 had set a May 15 deadline for a decision.
Canada, home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, will not for now follow the U.S. lead in listing the animals as threatened, Environment Minister John Baird indicated.