Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) is drafting legislation to protect the polar bear from oil and natural gas development in the Chukchi Sea offshore Alaska, legislation that likely would require the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) to postpone a lease sale scheduled for Feb. 6.

Markey, who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said last week he would introduce a bill so that the two federal agencies involved would make decisions "in the proper order to protect the polar bear." The directors of two Interior Department agencies, the MMS and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), testified before Markey's committee Thursday along with a scientist from Interior's U.S. Geological Survey who has forecasted a two-thirds reduction in sea ice by 2050.

Markey's committee is examining why Interior allowed the FWS to postpone a decision on whether to protect the polar bear habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but allowed MMS to proceed with the Alaska lease sale in a critical habitat area. The FWS had been scheduled to announce on Jan. 9 whether the polar bear habitat should be listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, but officials delayed a final decision until next month -- most likely after the lease sale is completed (see NGI, Jan. 14).

The Chukchi leasehold is estimated to contain 15 billion bbl of oil and 76 Tcf of natural gas.

"The timing of the drilling decisions leaves the door open for the [Bush] 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. "Rushing to allow drilling in polar bear habitat before the bear [habitat determination is made] would be the epitome of this administration's backwards energy policy -- a policy of drill first and ask questions later."

During the hearing, Markey asked FWS Director Dale Hall for assurances that a decision on the polar bear habitat would be made before the scheduled lease sale next month. But Hall declined to provide an answer.

"It's not just making the decision; it's making it clear and why," Hall told the committee. Hall said more time was needed to examine the "thousands" of comments the FWS has received.

MMS Director Randall Luthi, who is in charge of the oil and gas lease sale, assured the committee that the polar bear already was adequately protected from oil and gas development under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. The lease sale, he said, includes provisions to mitigate any impacts on the bears' habitat.

"We believe adequate protection exists," said Luthi.

Steven Amstrup, a polar bear expert for the U.S. Geological Survey, testified that if there is an oil spill, the impact on the bears' habitat would be significant.

"The polar bears do not do well when they get into oil," and contact with oil would probably be fatal, Amstrup said.

Kassie Siegel, a polar bear expert and director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Air and Energy Program, also testified.

"This legislation announced...by Chairman Markey will give polar bears desperately needed protection," Siegel said. "In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must protect polar bears from direct impacts like oil spills." She added, "The only thing keeping pace with the melting of the sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of the Interior is rushing to approve oil and gas activities in polar bear habitat. This oil and gas sale must not proceed because the impacts to polar bears have not been considered."

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