Markey panel to study possible oil leasing impacts on polar bears

Jan. 16: "On Thin Ice: The Future of the Polar Bear", a House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming hearing, US Capitol Complex in a room and at a time to be determined. For additional information, contact the committee by telephone at (202) 225-4081 or check online at http://globalwarming.house.gov/.

Why it matters: Chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wants to examine the possible addition of the polar bear to protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and a recent US Department of Interior decision which he says would open polar bear habitats to oil drilling.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to make a final decision on a proposal to list the polar bear as an endangered species by Jan. 9 but announced on Jan. 7 that this will delayed until February. The DOI agency reopened and extended the comment period after US Geological Service scientists provided new information in September about the Southern Bering Sea Polar Bear population and more data on sea ice trends and effects on the bears.

The US Minerals Management Service issued a final notice on Jan. 2 for the first US Outer Continental Lease Sale in the Chukchi Sea since 1991, which it plans to hold on Feb. 6. It said that the sale area would not include near-shore waters between 25 and 50 miles from the coast, including the "polynya" through which the bowhead and beluga whales, other marine mammals, and marine birds migrate north in the spring, and in which local communities subsistence hunt. Leases issued in the sale will include stipulations to address possible environmental impacts from development of oil and gas resources in what is considered one of North America's last frontier areas which could contain up to 15 million bbl of recoverable oil, MMS said.

"The Bush administration is once again putting the oil cart before the polar bear. On the one hand, the Interior Department is dragging its feet on protecting the polar bear, while opening up new oil and gas drilling in sensitive polar bear habitats on the other. The administration's own scientists are warning us that two-thirds of all polar bears may be gone by 2050 because of a warming Earth, yet rather than speed up protections for this iconic animal, the Bush administration is speeding up its giveaway of polar bear habitat to Big Oil," Markey said on Jan. 7.

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