Alaska's Polar Bears: Going With The Floe?

Energy: The green light given by the Fish and Wildlife Service for oil drilling off Alaska is being portrayed as an OK to hurt polar bears. But there are so many polar bears, it's the drillers who should worry.
Environmentalists rejoiced last month when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared the polar bear endangered. The designation gave them a poster pet for the dangers of global warming and a club to bludgeon oil companies.

Last week, however, there was a break in the ice, so to speak. New Fish and Wildlife regulations gave legal protection to seven oil companies that plan to search for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast if "small numbers" of polar bears and Pacific walruses are incidentally harmed over the next five years.

The Associated Press went ballistic, proclaiming that less than a month after the polar bear was listed as endangered, "the Bush administration is giving oil companies permission to annoy and potentially harm them in the pursuit of oil and natural gas."

What the administration is doing is honoring contracts signed in February, before the polar bear was listed — wrongly, we believe — as endangered. Fact is, polar bears aren't endangered, either by oil companies or climate change.

When he made the listing, Kempthorne noted that exploration in the Chukchi Sea was exempt. "Polar bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act," he explained, "which has more stringent protections for polar bears than the Endangered Species Act does."



The Mineral Management Service estimates we could recover 15 billion barrels of oil plus 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the Chukchi Sea's 29.7 million acres. Oil companies enjoyed a similar exclusion in the Chukchi from 1991 to 1996 and in the Beaufort Sea since 1993 with no effect on the bears.

In fact, there's no proof of a single bear being harmed by oil operations in Alaska since 1993. Since 1960, when the Alaska oil hunt began, only two oil-related bear fatalities have been documented.

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