Photo: Susanne Miller / USFWS

By Barbara Kessler

The polar bear will be granted “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act, the Bush Administration announced today, because the Arctic ice the animal needs to survive is shrinking and scientific projections show it will jeopardize the polar bear’s survival prospects for decades to come. But the decision, delivered with caveats limiting its scope, will likely chill environmentalists’ hopes that protection for the polar bear could be pivotal in the fight against global warming.

Oil and gas companies will not need to change their plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic, nor should any businesses in the lower 48 states worry about curtailing greenhouse gas emissions because of the polar bear’s new status, said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, in announcing the decision Wednesday.

“While the legal standards under the ESA 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. Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective.”

Because the Endangered Species Act is “not the right tool” for adjusting climate policy, Kempthorne said he was issuing special “guidance” with his decision to insure that in the course of protecting the polar bear there is no “unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States.”

Oil drilling within the bear’s habitat — including recently signed oil leases in the Chukchi Sea — is not “mutually exclusive” with protecting the bear, he said, noting that ice loss, not drilling was threatening the polar bear, which already enjoys some protections from business activities under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Environmentalists who’ve been fighting for the polar bear for years lauded the administration’s step forward, but bristled at the mixed signals in the announcement. “There was good news and bad news for the polar bear today,” France Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote to supporters.

“The bad news? The Bush Administration’s plan for ‘protection’ is so full of loopholes for oil companies and other polluters that it could be the equivalent of sending a leaky lifeboat to rescue drowning polar bears…” she wrote.

Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club, issued a more scathing statement: “Allowing destructive energy development in polar habitat is akin to diagnosing someone with lung cancer and then handing them a lit cigarette. There is no environmentally-sound way to drill in polar bear habitat. Drilling would inundate polar bear habitat with pipelines, well pads, boat traffic, ice-breaking vessels, and seismic blasting, not to mention the ever-present threat of oil spills.”

Kempthorne said in a news conference that he wished he could have made a different decision on the polar bear (presumably not having to declare the bear in peril?), but was hemmed in by the “inflexible” law requiring him to make a decision based on the likelihood of that the polar bear’s survival will be endangered in the near future.

Several computer models consulted, included one by the International Panel on Climate Change, show historical loss of Arctic sea ice since the mid-20th Century and project that the trend will continue, he and other officials said. Scientific evidence also shows that the bear’s health and reproduction has declined in some of the areas with the worse loss of ice floes, which the animal needs for hunting.

In the news conference, Kempthorne, Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (charged with studying and monitoring the polar bear), and other officials sought to clarify the government’s seemingly contradictory statements pronouncing an animal threatened by conditions caused by global warming, while simultaneously declaring that global warming cannot be shown to be the direct cause of that animal’s plight.

They explained that the studies they relied upon did not directly “connect the dots” between global warming and the polar bear as required by the fine print of the ESA, which hadn’t foreseen global warming as a potential destroyer of habitats.

“We know the earth is warming.’’ Kempthorne said. “We know man is a factor in that. But we don’t’ know what extent that issue is having (on the polar bear).”

The administration was clearer in explaining its attendant message that the polar bear’s threatened status is no threat to business as usual. Oil and gas leases, Kempthorne said, “will go forward.”

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