"The timing of these two decisions leaves the door open for the administration to give Big Oil the rights to this polar bear habitat the moment before the protections for the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act go into effect," Markey said.
Looming over the controversy is the larger issue of climate change, which scientists predict could have devastating consequences for the polar bear.
A study issued last fall by the U.S. Geological Survey found that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050 due to increased sea ice melt caused by rising temperatures. The Chukchi Sea population, which makes up about half the U.S. polar bear population, is included in that estimate.
Concern about the impact of global warming on polar bears prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service last year to consider listing the species. The agency was scheduled to announce its decision on January 9 but instead said it needed a few more weeks to review information on the species.
"In taking this extra time I wanted to make sure that our staff and I had enough time to clearly understand ... the reasons why we accepted information we relied upon and why we didn't," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall told the committee. "It's not just making the decision, it's making it clear and why."
Democrats on the panel honed in on the reluctance of the Bush administration to delay the Chukchi Sea lease sale, set for February 6, until after the listing decision has been made.
"There is no excuse for not taking a few more weeks," said Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat.
The threat posed to the species by global warming merits strong action to ensure other threats are limited, Markey added.
"In the end man can adapt, but the bear cannot," he said.
Markey urged Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who oversees both agencies, to delay the lease sale until the listing decision has been made.
"In the end, if this is not fixed, it is Mr. Kempthorne who is to blame," Markey said. "I hope he understands the importance of his decision. I fear he does not."
Markey has introduced legislation to block lease sales in the Chukchi Sea until the Fish and Wildlife Service issues its decision on listing.
Eleven U.S. senators -- 10 Democrats and one Independent -- sent Kempthorne a letter Jan. 17 requesting a delay in the lease sale.
"The polar bear has become a tragic mascot of the impacts of climate change, but the U.S. government continues to leave it as vulnerable as ever," said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and lead author of the letter. "We should be protecting these animals, rather than auctioning off their habitat to the highest bidder."
There was no word today from Kempthorne on the issue.
At the hearing, the head of the minerals agency sought to assure lawmakers that a framework is in place to protect the polar bear, regardless of whether or not it is afforded the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
"We believe adequate protections exist," said Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, MMS.
The bear is already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Luthi told the panel, and MMS has worked closely with wildlife officials to ensure potential harm to the species is mitigated.
He added that there are no plans to delay the lease sale, which covers some 29.7 million acres of waters off northwestern Alaska. MMS estimates the area holds some 15 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Although Luthi acknowledged that his agency estimates a 33 to 50 percent chance of a major oil spill in the region, he downplayed the concern.
"We wouldn't be proceeding with this sale if we weren't comfortable that we had enough knowledge, enough data to say that we can adequately see that the polar bear is protected," he added. "I'm confident we have done all we needed to do."
The ranking Republican on the committee said he was convinced by Luthi's assurances.
The scientific evidence indicates "going ahead with the lease will not have a major impact on the habitat of polar bears in this part of the sea across Alaska," said Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
That drew the ire of Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, who argued that such a view ignores the growing evidence that global warming is well underway and already harming the polar bear.
"This is the last chance for the polar bear," he said. "It is unbelievable to me that people are still adopting the attitude of the ostrich. One million square miles of the Arctic disappeared this summer ... stunning the scientific community. This is visual evidence. It is not theoretical, it is not hypothetical. It is gone."
Inslee pressed Luthi with questions about the leasing plan, noting that the agency would not be able to force compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements for the polar bear if listing is finalized after the lease sales.
"You will have lost the ability to prevent drilling in certain areas," he said. "Once you issue the leases it is too late to go back and terminate them."
Luthi agreed that MMS would not have the ability to terminate leases, but said the sale of the leases is "just the first phase."
Lease holders have to submit a plan for exploration, he said, that must be approved by the Minerals Management Service and reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Inslee remained unconvinced, saying, "It negligent in the extreme to make this decision without having the declaration made by the other agency."
"Robert Frost wrote about two roads diverging in the wood, and here we have the Bush administration looking down two roads with regard to the polar bear," said Chairman Markey.
"Down one road lies the survival of the polar bear and the orderly consideration of oil drilling and global warming and common sense," he said. "Down the other road, too often traveled by this administration, lies regulatory lunacy and a blatant disregard for moral responsibility."
Markey urged Secretary Kempthorne and his agency "to choose the Bush administration's road less traveled and protect the polar bear, and the rest of us, from global warming."
Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission
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