This case goes right to the heart of global climate change issues, so read on.
SUMMIT COUNTY — The legal wrangling over critical polar bear habitat in Alaska will probably go into the history books as one of the fundamental battles over endangered species, global warming and energy politics.
At stake is the very survival of the magnificent Arctic ursine, and the lines are clearly drawn. Living up to its obligation to protect endangered species under the law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared polar bears as threatened, citing the impacts of global warming.
Last month, the The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska challenged the critical habitat designation for polar bears in court, complaining that the protections for the bears would plans for Arctic oil drilling.
Alaska Native corporations separately notified Interior of their intent to challenge the critical habitat rule but to date have not filed a lawsuit.
This week, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Greenpeace intervened in the lawsuit.
“If polar bears are going to live to see the next century, we have to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and preserve the Arctic, not turn it into a dirty industrial zone,” said Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director. “To protect polar bears we must protect the places they live, both from dangerous climate change and from oil spills.”
The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 because of the rapid melting of its sea-ice habitat. In November 2010, Interior designated 120 million acres of sea ice, barrier islands and coastal areas in Alaska as critical habitat for the bear. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat.
“With their homes literally melting beneath their feet, polar bears need all the protection they can get,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “If polar bears are to survive the impacts of climate change, we have to protect the habitat that is critical to their ability to find food and raise their young.”
Despite protecting great swaths of the Arctic Ocean as polar bear habitat, the Interior Department is currently moving forward with plans to allow oil companies to drill in that very same habitat.
Earlier this year the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon and Offshore Drilling released a report concluding that the oil industry is not prepared to deal with a large spill in the Arctic and recommending that no drilling be allowed until the industry can demonstrate the ability to clean up spills in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean.
“If we protect polar bear critical habitat, we are by extension also protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Chukchi Sea and other important areas of the Arctic,” said Melanie Duchin, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace. “The state and oil industry’s lawsuits are a threat not just to the polar bear but to the health of the Arctic ecosystem.”