Oil vs Polar Bears in Alaska: Big Oil Sues Govt for Protecting Polar Bear Habitat

[Update Mar 3 2011: An Alaska oil industry trade group representing 15 oil & gas companies sued the US federal government because it banned drilling in 187,157 square miles as polar bear critical habitat. They claim plenty of polar bears without offering any evidence. And it’s not like Alaskan oil interests haven’t run the state for years. My article below documents how 30 million acres of polar bear habitat were auctioned off in a big hurry in 2008. It really is all about oil/gas $ VS survival of polar bears. — Stephen]

[Update: May 1 2010 – Alaska’s polar bears are now official listed as threatened. In April 2010, the Obama administration tried but failed to get the world’s 20-25,000 remaining polar bears listed as endangered species. What a difference a new administration makes .–Stephen]

By Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Mar 11, 2008 (IPS)

A coalition of environmental groups sued the George W. Bush administration Monday for delaying a decision to protect polar bears threatened with extinction due to the melting ice in its Arctic habitat. Polar bears could be the first species officially threatened by climate change.

The huge loss of summer sea ice in 2007 has caused many scientists to project that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by as soon as 2012. Although excellent swimmers, polar bears are not very good at catching seals in the water. Seals comprise the main diet for these giant bears, which are far larger than their grizzly bear cousins.

While legally required to make a decision Jan. 9, US Fish and Wildlife (U.S. FWS) officials have been silent. Meanwhile on Feb. 6, 2.6 billion dollars in oil and gas leases were auctioned off to energy companies on nearly 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat in the Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.

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Coincidence? I doubt it, but I don’t have the smoking gun to prove it,” said Kassie Siegel of the Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental non-governmental organisation based in Joshua Tree, California.

The CBD, along with Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defence Council, filed the suit for missing the legal deadline for issuing a final decision on whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.

“There was absolutely no urgency to hold that lease sale and plenty of public opposition to it as well,” Siegel told IPS.


Had U.S. FWS listed polar bears as threatened on Jan. 9, then the Chukchi Sea lease sale could not have gone ahead without some studies to assess the potential impacts on polar bears, she said.

Should the polar bears be listed as threatened in the near future then the U.S. government has an obligation to protect their habitat and that might mean having to buy back the Chukchi leases from the energy companies, and at a premium price. The Centre for Biological Diversity has also filed a lawsuit over the lease sale but that could still mean U.S. taxpayers would have to pay the energy companies for those leases, says Siegel.

These lawsuits, which first commenced in 2005, have much more to do with climate change than protecting polar bears, the environmental groups acknowledge. It’s a roundabout way of getting the U.S. government to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. If polar bears are threatened by climate change, then U.S. federal agencies are obligated under the Endangered Species Act to reduce their emissions of the climate altering gases.

“It’s no substitute for a federal cap on emissions, but it’s something,” Siegel said. “We’re not going to magically reduce our emissions with a snap of our fingers. We need many solutions.”

Although the Arctic region is being transformed by climate change that will only worsen, there is intense opposition to listing polar bears as threatened in Alaska by many native peoples in Canada. U.S. trophy hunting of polar bears is a 2-million-dollar a year business for the Arctic region of Nunavut in northwest Canada.

Canada is home to 60 percent of the world’s estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears. Nearly hunted to extinction in the 1970s, polar bear populations have rebounded thanks to strict hunting quotas. However, recent studies of some polar bear groups over the vast Arctic region show poor survival rates for cubs and adults that are much lighter in weight than in the past.

That’s not the case for the bears in parts of Nunavut, according to Government of Nunavut’s wildlife officials. Davis Strait, one of their southern-most roaming grounds, is “crawling with polar bears”, Mitchell Taylor, director of wildlife research, told the Nunatsiaq News last fall. By Taylor’s estimates, there may be 1,500 more bears in the region than previous counts.


However, the greatest Arctic ice losses have been mostly confined to the western Arctic, not the southern region as commonly supposed. And that’s the area where the bears have been hit hardest – the Beaufort Sea and the Western Hudson Bay populations, according to Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta, and head of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Monitoring a few thousand white bears on white snow and ice over an area twice the size of the continental U.S. is challenging to say the least. Derocher has told IPS in previous interviews that experts do not have good data on some of the bear populations. However, what satellite pictures make very clear is that the ice in the region is deteriorating and very quickly, he said.

That loss of ice will affect the bears, and whether they can adapt to the fast changing conditions by finding different food sources is an open question. It could be argued that opening up their territory to oil and gas drilling may be a more direct and immediate threat than climate change.

According to environmentalists, the U.S. government has received approximately 670,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress.

“If the federal government is really serious about protecting the polar bear, then its next steps will be to cancel lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and immediately implement a plan for deep cuts in U.S. global warming pollution,” said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA, in a statement.


See here for more details on the bears’ decline in Alaska: Polar Bears Go Hungry as Icy Habitat Melts Away

And here are my latest articles on the state of the Arctic:

Arctic Ice Gone in 5 Years – First Time in One Million Years

Arctic Is the Canary in the Coalmine

Burning Down Our House

Arctic Oil and Gas Rush Alarms Scientists

Arctic Meltdown Signals Long-Term Trend

10 thoughts on “Oil vs Polar Bears in Alaska: Big Oil Sues Govt for Protecting Polar Bear Habitat

  1. Why are your articles so blatently one-sided? You fail to metion many important facts.

    1. The world’s polar bear population is not at all shrinking. It has more than doubled over the past century. Meaning; there are twice as many polar bears now compared to before this “global warming” began.

    2. The sea ice that melted this last summer has more than replenished itself over this year’s colder than normal winter.

    3. There are some polar bear habitats that have so much more sea ice this winter that there are colonies of bears that are starving. (See: Sisimiut, Greenland. Feb 2008). Polar bears are semi-aquatic marine mamals, and though they usaually don’t hunt while swimming, they have been known to swim over 100km to find suitable hunting conditions. They have thrived in warmer conditions in the past and they will again.

    I’m so tired of people trying to use ecological justification to push a political agenda. You know full well that polar bear protection would be used mostly to push this AGW scam to make the left wing elite rich and doom the rest of us to economic doom. You’re one of a bunch of watermelons, (green on the outside but RED to the core). So, Mr. Pot. What is it that you were calling the kettle?

  2. 1. I’m afraid your not talking about facts nor reading my full article which points out that PB numbers are increasing in parts of Canada but only because over-hunting nearly wiped them out. Not hard to double pop when there were so few left. It’s a different story in Alaska where PBs are declining. 20-25,000 are left in the entire world — not a hell of lot in such an immense area.

    2. The Arctic ice did not recover this winter — it is much thinner and covers a smaller area. Freeze-up was many weeks later than normal and much of the Beaufort sea had big leads — open areas. Some new studies are coming out on this. Thinner is key here… meaning it will melt much faster this summer

    3. The last time there was no ice in the Arctic was a million years ago — no polar bears them so I don’t know how you can say they will thrive. The entire Arctic region is changing, although most of the melting is in the west. Greenland is melting at a slower rate.

    My article makes it clear that the Centre for Biological Diversity admits to using the threat to PBs as a way to get action on Climate Change. If you’re suggesting that CC is political you’re not up to speed on the science and clear evidence ie Arctic temps are up 6+degrees

  3. I was thinking about how much stuff humans could accomplish in the way of suffering if global warming wouldnt be around. I know of people who have died of cancer, it is real. I dont know of anyone who has died of global warming. You know you are not smart enough to solve cancer so you focus on a problem that you can feel good about yourself. Look at me, I have a blog about global warming, I still drive a car, eat meat, and breath, but damn it Im important. Where did the glaciers go? Stop trying to latch on to things in life to make yourself miserable and yet self important at the same time. And by the way, how many polar bears are there? Oh thats right we dont know. Why does it have to be oil vs polar bears. They wouldnt even notice our presence and if they did they would flourish on our waste products like all other bears have.

  4. Thanks for Posting this blog mate, it’s very informative and despite what these people are saying , I believe you are quite right.

    Clint, no offense, but your comments are simply short sighted, have you ever heard of the saying ‘prevention is better than cure’.

    Often Cancer could be prevented, by industry lowering emmisions and pollution, by good companies looking into what’s good for us to eat rather than what’s inexpensive and easy to package/sell, by motorists leaving thier cars at home and therefore lowering carbon emmissions which can be rather deadly and by humans as individuals looking after themselves much better.

    My Gran died of cancer recently too, she was a smoker for most of her life, I’ve absolutely no doubt as to what killed her and it doesn’t take much expensive research to work that out.

    Keeping the economy afloat and raising human living standards beyond a means they actually need is not going to be worth jack if the planet is reduced to a radioactive or heavilly polluted slag where our only option is to leave it or perish.

    People are already dying, our influence on the environment is changing weather systems and causing drought, have you suddenly forgotten that Africa and most of Asia exist ??????

  5. Incidentally – he’s quite right – there was absolutely no reason for any of the urgency on these sales, the chukchi sea in particular is a ridiculously difficult area to drill, it’s not like the oil is just waiting there to be scooped up, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere !!

  6. […] Oil vs Polar Bears in Alaska « Stephen Leahy Environmental Journalist Although the Arctic region is being transformed by climate change that will only worsen, there is intense opposition to listing polar bears as threatened in Alaska by many native peoples in Canada. The CBD, along with Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defence Council, filed the suit for missing the legal deadline for issuing a final decision on whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered… […]

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