Polar bears enter debate on Arctic oil

Oct 30, 2001 01:00 AM

A federal environmental agency concluded in 1995 that oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might violate an international agreement to protect polar bears, documents show. The Fish and Wildlife Service, a biological agency in the Interior Department, warned in two internal reports that opening the refuge to development might put the United States out of compliance with the five-nation International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears. But those reports never reached Congress, which is now debating the Alaska refuge's future.
Now America's global commitment to the polar bear, the world's largest land predator, could provide a new twist to the contentious dispute over oil in the Arctic. Environmental groups, who had been attacking Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton recently for giving Congress slanted and even erroneous data about caribou in the refuge, sought to link the polar bear accord to the Kyoto global-warming deal and other treaties opposed by President Bush.

"This is a classic Bush administration strategy of running roughshod over international agreements," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Centre for Biological Diversity. Norton spokesman Mark Pfeifle noted that nothing in the polar bear agreement specifically prohibits oil exploration. And he pledged that if the Senate approves drilling in the refuge, as the House did in August, the administration will work to minimize impacts on polar bears, caribou and any other wildlife.
"This bipartisan energy bill includes the most stringent environmental regulations ever required for domestic oil and gas production," Pfeifle said. It is no secret that some polar bears forage, rest and enter dens to give birth in the Arctic refuge's coastal plain, the area where the administration hopes to drill. One of the 1995 Fish and Wildlife reports, titled "Habitat Conservation Strategy for Polar Bears in Alaska," noted that the Arctic refuge contains "the greatest concentration of denning polar bears in Alaska,"with "the heaviest denning" in the 1.5-mm-acre coastal plain.
Even Interior's Website acknowledges that drilling could affect denning in the Arctic: "Because the highest densities of maternal land denning overlaps with potential oil and gas development in the [coastal plain], disturbance from exploration and development activities could cause den abandonment by pregnant females or females with newborn cubs."

But the long-running debate over oil in the Arctic -- pitting environmentalists who want the entire refuge to remain in a wilderness state against conservatives who want to promote economic growth and reduce US dependence on foreign oil -- has largely ignored the international agreement to protect polar bears. Signed in 1973 by the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the Soviet Union, it committed each nation to protect its key polar bear habitats, including denning areas.
In the "Habitat conservation" report, which was given by Suckling, a fierce drilling opponent, Fish and Wildlife noted that oil and gas development is banned on the refuge, and that "any change in the current status... may necessitate a legal evaluation on the US compliance with the Polar Bear Agreement."
It also said that any change "will require a thorough biological assessment of the proposal and an evaluation of whether it will result in greater than negligible impacts to polar bears." Fish and Wildlife, an agency of biologists who tend to oppose drilling, also drafted a report to Congress analysing US compliance with the agreement. A separate 1996 report by the Marine Mammals Commission summarized one of its findings: "The Service believed that any change in the status of the [refuge] would necessitate re-evaluation of US compliance with the habitat mandates of the Agreement."

The report itself, however, was never made public, even though it was due five years ago. Acting Fish and Wildlife director Marshall Jones said it was not forwarded to Congress during the Clinton administration because it was "related to sensitive ongoing negotiations with Russia" about a separate bilateral polar bear treaty signed last year. Suckling recently filed a public-records request seeking the report, but the Interior Department refused to release it. Suckling plans to file a lawsuit.
"This is just one more delay tactic by an interest group that's focused on increasing its mailing list and its fundraising," Pfeifle complained. To drilling proponents such as Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the larger point is that there are now somewhere between 22,000 and 27,000 polar bears in the Arctic, and they seem to be doing just fine despite a fair amount of oil activity on the North Slope.
"The argument that drilling would actually imperil polar bear stocks is completely specious," said Murkowski spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte. "We think it's extremely unlikely, if not entirely impossible, that any polar bears would be harmed."

Source: The Washington Post Company
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