US says polar bear threatened; limits energy work

14 May 2008 22:13  [Source: ICIS news]

US action may further limit drilling in arctic regionWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US government on Wednesday declared the polar bear a threatened species under federal environmental protection laws, a ruling that may further limit efforts to develop US energy resources in Alaska.


The Interior Department said it is listing the polar bear as a threatened species, “based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat”.


Advocates of increased US domestic energy development - including many in the US Congress - have long sought access to oil and gas reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on Alaska’s north coast.


The US chemicals industry, which is heavily dependent on natural gas as a feedstock, and the broader manufacturing sector have been appealing to Congress to open ANWR and other US onshore and offshore reserves to development.


Environmentalists have opposed drilling in the refuge on grounds it would disrupt and endanger the wildlife that ANWR was created to protect.  Former president Bill Clinton vetoed a congressionally approved ANWR drilling programme in 1995.


Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that the loss of arctic sea ice has reached its lowest level since satellite imaging of the poles began in 1979, and that consequently under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) the polar bear must be designated as threatened.


However, Kempthorne said his decision and an accompanying department rule will seek to protect the polar bear and its environment “while limiting unintended harm to society and the economy of the US”.


Under the ESA, an animal group termed threatened could be elevated to the endangered category, which would require broad restrictions on human activity in and around the animal’s habitat.


Despite the ruling, Kempthorne said the US nevertheless can “continue to develop our natural resources in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way”.


Because of the Interior Department ruling, anyone seeking energy development or any other facility construction in polar bear habitat will have to obtain a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


($1 = €.65)


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