Arctic Oil Drilling Debate Continues as Polar Bears Granted “Critical Habitat”

November 26, 2010

On Wednesday the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated 187,000 square miles in Alaska as critical habitat for the polar bear, a species threatened by global warming and oil and gas development.  This decision comes after years of criticism from environmental groups, which argue the federal government has not done enough to protect polar bears in Alaska. 

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” said Tom Strickland of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change.”

In 2008 a lawsuit forced the George W. Bush administration to for the first time grant the polar bear protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Though the bears were listed as threatened rather than given the more protective “endangered” status, this marked a victory for groups that had been pushing for years to see the species listed at all.  Since 2008 the federal government has been slow in defining what critical habitat is needed for polar bears to survive, but Wednesday’s announcement is a sign the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally ready to take this step.

The new designation doesn’t necessarily preclude oil and gas development and other harmful activities within polar bears’ critical habitat.  However it does mean federal agencies have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before these activities can move forward.  Supporters of the oil industry, like Alaska Governor Sean Parnell (Republican), have criticized the habitat designation because it may prevent energy development in certain areas.  Parnell has complained the federal government is already limiting oil drilling in Alaska by too much.

Meanwhile groups like Defenders of Wildlife say oil and gas drilling puts added pressures on polar bear populations already jeopardized by global warming.  A changing climate is the most important cause of polar bear declines, and scientists warn the problem will get worse in the years ahead.  During the icy arctic winter and spring, polar bears hunt for seals on the ice flows and store up fat reserves to last them through the summer.  A study published this year in the journal Biological Conservation warns that as arctic ice thaws sooner and freezes later in the year, polar bears will be deprived of their best hunting grounds and will slowly starve to death.

The long term survival of polar bears depends on slowing global warming and reducing carbon emissions from the world’s major economies.  Yet environmental groups say protecting polar bear habitat from the oil and gas industries can give the species the best possible fighting chance of adapting to changes in the climate.  Defenders of Wildlife has mounted a campaign urging the Obama administration not to approve leases for Shell Oil and other companies that want to drill in the arctic’s Chukchi Sea next year. 

The debate over arctic oil drilling has become all the more heated following the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.  Though many Americans assume oil companies will have learned from BP’s mistakes, the truth is Congress has still not passed new legislation to prevent a similar accident happening again.  If an oil spill on the scale of the BP disaster were to occur in Alaska’s arctic, the remote location would make it even more difficult to stop or respond to the accident. 

“There is still no effective, proven technology to clean up oil spills in broken sea ice conditions in Arctic waters,” states an action alert from Defenders of Wildlife, which goes on to warn this is a problem that could doom bowhead whales, threatened polar bears and other wildlife if drilling proceeds.”

Photo credit: flickrfavorites,

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