POLAR BEAR LISTING LIKELY TO BE USED
TO FORCE U.S. TO ADDRESS BROADER
ISSUE OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
Environmental activists wearing polar bear suits and bright orange life-vests filled a public hearing in Washington, D.C. last month demanding that polar bears be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In a similar meeting in Anchorage, environmentalists demanded broad critical habitat designations across Alaska’s energy-rich North Slope and openly admitted their goal is to force the U.S. government to address global climate change.
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash) said the bear could serve as a mascot for Congress to press for strict limitations on carbon emissions. “It would certainly be another arrow in our quiver," he said of the proposed listing. "This is a wake up call to Americans to start dealing with carbon dioxide emissions.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed listing the polar bear under the ESA because climate change is melting its habitat polar sea ice. The recommendation is based heavily on some computer models that predict summer sea ice in the Arctic vanishing by 2045.
The Interior Department has said it does not intend to address carbon emissions or other issues of global climate change, even if it moves to list the polar bear. The department noted the law gives it little room to address the broader issues that may be causing receding ice.
However, environmentalists envision broad protections and have urged FWS to use the ESA to force consultations on power plants and other projects.
“We all know the ESA extends beyond these walls,” said Kert Davies, a research director for Greenpeace, a group that sued to list the bear. “Climate change must be considered when the administration approves energy plants.”
Such consultations are a major concern to the American Farm Bureau Federation which fears an ESA listing could force farmers to consult with federal biologists on the emissions from cows. The Federation fears that even if the FWS doesn’t do consultations as part of the listing, environmental groups would likely sue to force such an action.
Other industries are concerned, too, including oil, gas, coal and utility interests. Lawsuits, using the listing as a mechanism to address the broader issue of global climate change, could target development of coal deposits and the construction of new coal-fired plants. Plants that burn coal now supply more than 50 percent of the nation’s electricity.
It is a low-cost and abundant fuel, but burning less of it would drive up the cost of electricity. It is highly probable that among the effects of a listing will be lawsuits to force consultations on a wide range of activities and to push the agency to designate large portions of Alaska’s arctic as critical habitat.
Once critical habitat designations are in place, more litigation challenging development in or near those designations would likely occur and affect projects ranging from village infrastructure expansion to new energy exploration in highly prospective areas.
This is a major concern to Alaska since 90 percent of the state’s revenue base comes from North Slope oil production. Less exploration translates into lower production, which means less revenue to the state, compromising its ability to provide services to rural and urban Alaskans.
An ESA polar bear listing could even jeopardize the long-term economics of the proposed Alaska gas pipeline. The pipeline is considered vital to Alaska’s future since it is projected to begin generating revenues to the state about the time oil production falls below levels needed to sustain the economy. Experts warn that new natural gas discoveries beyond the North Slope’s 35 trillion cubic feet of known reserves are vital to ensuring the long-term profitability of any gas pipeline. But an ESA listing with its subsequent critical habitat designations and third-party lawsuits could discourage investment and block access to highly prospective areas that may hold up to 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
At a public hearing in Anchorage last month, RDC argued that the FWS cannot make a “threatened” finding at this time because there is too much scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of global climate change, the future impacts of climate change on the Arctic ecosystem and how the polar bear will adapt to changing conditions.
RDC also said a listing cannot be justified since polar bears are abundant and their population in Alaska is healthy in size and distribution. Moreover, polar bears continue to occupy their entire range, and they and their habitats are already well managed and protected by regulatory mechanisms, laws and international agreements.
An ESA listing would be unprecedented in that it would invoke the ESA to list a species whose population worldwide has more than doubled in 40 years. Ironically, the growth of the polar bear population in Alaska has coincided with the emergence of the oil and gas industry across the North Slope, and during a period of warming temperatures.
The proposed listing is based heavily on highly speculative risks and selective use of carbon-emission scenarios and climate change models. RDC noted there is no consensus on whether one scenario or model is more likely to occur over another. It also noted key uncertainties in both the emission scenarios and climate response models make it impossible to reach reliable conclusions so as to support a listing.
The State of Alaska, in its preliminary comments, also raised the issue of sea ice modeling. The state said it is not clear why sea ice models predicting loss of the multiyear ice during summer within 40 years were used by the FWS instead of other models. The state said it is also not clear why the loss of sea ice was used as the only important factor for survival of polar bears.
Tina Cunning, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, pointed out that “polar bears survived two major warming periods in the past, so it is not evident to us that sea ice loss will cause a decline in polar bears so they are ‘threatened’ with extinction in 45 years.”
The information used to develop the proposed listing primarily modeled the loss of arctic sea ice and did not include modeling data that considered polar bear population factors, Cunning said.
Cunning suggested additional information on population factors such as terrestrial habitat use and food sources should be considered in such modeling for the month or so of potential ice-free conditions along the coast in late summer.
Richard Glenn, an Inupiat resident of Barrow and a cocaptain of a subsistence whaling crew, said polar bears have been known to travel more than 60 miles inland, even when ice conditions would have allowed them to roam offshore.
“A polar bear is at home in the water, on the ice, and on the land.” Glenn testified at a Barrow hearing. “Polar bears have adapted, and adapt each year to changing habitat, prey and other food sources.” (See article below.)
Glenn said a threatened listing for the polar bear under the ESA will do little for the bear. “It will not create more ice cover. It will not change their ability to locate dens or prey. But it will negatively and disproportionately affect the lives of the people, the Inupiat Eskimos, who coexist with the polar bear in the Alaskan arctic.”
The Alaska Oil and Gas Association said it seems odd that the FWS would list the bear without clearly identifying how the listing will truly benefit the bear.
“Given that current practices adequately protect the bear, that population data for the bear do not show a decline, and that FWS representatives do not have a clear path forward indicating what measures will be taken to improve polar bear conservation if the listing goes forward, we fail to see the value of the listing,” said Deputy Director Marilyn Crockett.
Crockett said speculation about the loss of sea ice over the next 45 years, confounded with further speculations about the response of polar bears to this loss of sea ice, should not outweigh data that show no negative trend in polar bear numbers.
Crockett urged FWS not to list the polar bear on the ESA, noting the law requires that adverse effects on species populations be determined to be probable, not simply possible.
RDC encourages its members to submit written comments to the FWS by April 9.