May 23, 2013
Politicizing the Polar Bear
Posted on Jun 30, 2008
Jan. 15, 2008: In another New York Times editorial (“Regulatory Games and the Polar Bear”) we read:
Two weeks later, as if in response to this impassioned editorial, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial of its own, “The Polar Bear Express,” in which it took exactly the opposite position from everyone who believed that the bears were threatened and would be even more so if drilling was allowed in their habitat. For example, the editorial states, “The problem is that polar bear populations have been rising over the past four decades and may be at an historic high.” But polar bear populations throughout the Arctic have fallen precipitously over the past four decades, and some are at 60 percent of what they were in 1960. Naturally, the head-in-the-sand editorialists at the Journal were prepared to argue that global warming isn’t really a problem at all, writing, “These projections are speculative, however, and tend to underestimate the dynamism of the environment. Animals adapt to changing conditions, which might mean a shift in population patterns to areas where pack ice is more robust year-round.”
But every climatologist knows that there has been a drastic loss of the Arctic sea ice, and that this loss will only increase. To suggest that it is up to the bears to “adapt to changing conditions” flies smack in the face of evolutionary history: Failure to adapt to changing conditions is one of the primary causes of extinction. Said the Journal: “The logical—and dangerous—leap here is that the greens are attempting to re-write the Endangered Species Act without actual legislation. If the ‘iconic’ polar bear is classified as threatened, and the harm is formally attributed to warming caused by humans, then their gambit would lead to all sorts of regulatory mischief.” But as written, and without any modification, the Endangered Species Act protects the habitat of a species classified as threatened (not to mention endangered), and the very act of drilling in the Chukchi Sea is hazardous to the bears—think of oil spills, which are part of the process—and nobody, except perhaps the editorial writers at the Journal, denies that global warming is caused by humans. What the Journal calls “a modest sale of oil and gas leases” is actually an auction of leases in nearly 46,000 square miles—an area the size of Pennsylvania—of prime polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea.
After weeks of anxious waiting on the part of environmentalists, the decision was made last Feb. 6 to allow the Department of the Interior to move ahead with the auction of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea. Immediately, Royal Dutch Shell bid $105 million for a single exploration block, and $2.1 billion for 275 tracts. The last lease sale in the Chukchi, held in 1991, brought in a total of only $7.4 million. About 25 years ago, Shell had explored some of the same regions it leased in 2008 but had relinquished the leases as uneconomic. Now, high oil prices have transformed previously undesirable high-cost regions into exploration hot spots for oil companies—and extinction hot spots for polar bears.
On March 11 a coalition of environmental groups sued the Bush administration for delaying a decision to protect the polar bears. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed the suit over the government’s missing the legal deadline for issuing a final decision on whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. Had the Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears as threatened on Jan. 9, the Chukchi Sea lease sale could not have gone ahead without critical studies to assess the potential impacts on polar bears. Should the polar bears be listed as threatened in the near future, the U.S. government would have an obligation to protect their habitat, and that might mean having to buy back the Chukchi leases from the energy companies, at a premium price. As this seems more than a little unlikely, the bears might have to figure out how to protect themselves.
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