Carbon Emissions | May 11, 2009 |
Endangered Species Ruling Leaves Polar Bears Out in the Cold
The polar bear was listed as threatened under the Act on May 14, 2008 because climate change is melting the species' sea ice habitat, leaving bears unable to hunt. The Bush administration imposed rule 4(d) to ensure the listing would not require new efforts to tackle global warming or put new restrictions on oil and gas development in polar bear habitat.
Today, after review of the rule, Secretary Salazar agreed with his predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne, that the Endangered Species Act was never intended to regulate global climate change.
"To see the polar bear's habitat melting and an iconic species threatened is an environmental tragedy of the modern age," Salazar told reporters on a teleconference today. "This administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear."
"I have reviewed the current rule, received the recommendations of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and concluded that the best course of action for protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act is to wisely implement the current rule, monitor its effectiveness, and evaluate our options for improving the recovery of the species," said Salazar.
"The Endangered Species Act is not the proper tool to deal with a global issue - global warming," Salazar said. "We need to move forward with a comprehensive climate change and energy plan we can be proud of."
He said it is not possible under the Endangered Species Act to regulate, for instance, greenhouse gas emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania because there is "a nexus to what's happening on the polar ice caps."
The Interior Department will have to defend its position in court. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace initiated a legal challenge to the 4(d) rule last May and today Andrew Wetzler, director of the NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Program, said the legal action will proceed.
"This is yet another decision by the Department of Interior that undermines protection for our endangered animals," said Wetzler. "The impact of global warming are already being felt in the arctic, and it poses a grave threat to polar bears and the entire ecosystem. We need to use every tool at our disposal, including the Endangered Species Act. The rule endorsed today is illegal, and we will continue to fight it in court."
The environmental groups argue that the 4(d) rule undermines protection for the polar bear by exempting all activities that occur outside of the polar bears' range from review.
But the polar bear is endangered because of the emission of greenhouse gases by the burning of coal, oil and gas in power plants, factories and cars across the United States and around the world. The resulting warming is leading to the rapid disappearance of summer sea ice.
Salazar agrees that the polar bear is threatened by climate change, but said, "the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation's carbon emissions. Instead," he said, "we need a comprehensive energy and climate strategy that curbs climate change and its impacts – including the loss of sea ice. Both President Obama and I are committed to achieving that goal."
Environmental groups called the decision a gift to the oil and gas industry, and the industry was indeed pleased.
American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said, "We welcome the administration's decision because we, like Secretary Ken Salazar, recognize that the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation's carbon emissions. Instead, we need a comprehensive, integrated energy and climate strategy to address this complex, global challenge."
"This decision serves to protect the polar bear while providing greater regulatory certainty not only to the oil and natural gas industry but also to all U.S. manufacturers," said Gerard.
President Obama's Fiscal Year 2010 budget request includes a new commitment to helping conserve the polar bear, Salazar said.
The budget request includes an increase of $7.4 million for polar bear conservation, of which $3.2 million will be invested through the Fish and Wildlife Service.
This new commitment includes a $1.5 million increase for the Endangered Species program to address new and reinitiated interagency consultations on oil and gas projects and to prepare for a range-wide Polar Bear Conservation Plan to guide U.S. and international work to conserve and improve the status of the species.
An increase of $1.7 million will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service Marine Mammal program to intensify work with partners to prepare, review, and publish population assessments, conservation plans, and incidental take regulations. In addition, the Endangered Species Act still provides civil and criminal penalties for actions that kill or injure bears and bars federal agencies from taking actions that are likely to jeopardize the species or adversely modify its critical habitat, Salazar pointed out.
The polar bear also is protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which provides equal and in some cases more stringent protections than the Endangered Species Act, and international treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, Salazar argued.
But environmental groups are not persuaded.
"It makes little sense for Salazar to rescind Bush's national policy barring consideration of global warming impacts to endangered species in general, but keep that exact policy in place for the one species most endangered by global warming — the polar bear," said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Salazar was not convinced by criticism of the rule and requests to revoke it from more than 1,300 scientists, more than 50 prominent legal experts, dozens of lawmakers, more than 130 conservation organizations and hundreds of thousands of members of the public.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, today said, "I disagree with the Department of Interior's decision to limit the tools we have available under the Endangered Species Act to save the polar bear from extinction. Monitoring the situation will not tell us more than we know now – that the polar bear is threatened and we need to act."