Today the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing: “On thin ice: the future of the polar bear.” The room was full, and there was a fairly good turnout of at least eight Congressmen and women. Children were among those in attendance, their eyes wide as they absorbed the strong words that flew from all sides of the room. Some “polar bears” even made an appearance, positioning themselves for coverage on C-SPAN and holding up signs.
Chairman Markey called the hearing today to press the Department of the Interior about its decision to delay the listing of the polar bear as threatened — under the Endangered Species Act — for up to one month, and to simultaneously offer up almost 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea — the polar bear’s habitat — for oil and gas lease sales on Feb. 6, before the decision is made. The hearing also provided a forum to learn more about the plight of the polar bear and the potential impacts drilling could have on polar bear populations. Markey called this hearing because people are paying attention; several editorials have been run in major papers in the US (Washington Post, NYTimes, LATimes, etc) regarding the status of this iconic species and our reckless oil habit – – the situation will not continue quietly if such pressure continues. If listed, the polar bear’s protection would be linked to the impacts of global warming — a first in history.
Throughout the course of the hearing it became overwhelmingly clear that the science surrounding the status of the polar bear is unequivocal. The threats posed to this great creature are tangible, quantifiable and ever increasing as we emit more global warming pollution each day. Congressman Inslee (D-WA) put it the best when he said that the polar bear is the largest canary in the largest coal mine regarding the future of our planet. And it is only with willful ignorance and habitual arrogance that we choose to ignore science for a temporary oil fix from the newly opened northern seas. Not only is drilling in the Chukchi Sea devastating for wildlife, it does nothing to help us move away from our addiction to oil.
Randall Luthi, Director of the Minerals Management Service, spoke in defense of the Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sale, and Dale Hall, Director of US FWS, spoke in defense of the decision delay. Mr. Hall’s own agency received scientific reports which concluded that two-thirds of the polar bears would disappear because of shrinking sea ice by mid-century if steps are not taken to curtail global warming. What additional science does Mr. Hall require, when making the decision about the polar bear? These men offered weak testimony, and attempted to dodge every single direct question posed to them by Congressmen, including questions of oil spill risk and whether the leases would really just be another handoff to the oil and gas industry. Hall further declined to offer Markey any assurance that the decision on whether to list the bear under the Endangered Species Act will occur before the scheduled oil & gas lease sales.
The Department of the Interior is currently allowing our hunger and thirst for oil to surpass all other forms of human value. Dirk Kempthorne – the Secretary of the Interior – has the worst record in history regarding listing species as endangered; he has gone more than 617 days without designating an endangered species, longer than any previous Secretary. His lack of action is not due to a lack of species’ needs.
The bottom line is that Dirk Kempthorne has the power to postpone the oil and gas lease sale decision until after Mr. Hall makes his decision regarding the polar bear. He needs to do this, and he will only do this if enough public attention, and pressure is applied. So please speak up!