May 5, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Polar Bear Politics

Talk about bad timing. Gas prices are spiking and U.S. energy policy is contributing to skyrocketing food costs, yet environmentalists apparently want to make it even more expensive to live in America. And they're trying to use the polar bear to do it.

A federal judge in California ruled last week that the Bush administration must decide by May 15 whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act because of global warming. The upcoming deadline is fueling fears that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne could cave to left-wing environmentalists.

Listing the polar bear as a threatened species would be a devastating blow for U.S. energy exploration and a boon to global-warming alarmists.

The classification would open the door for environmentalists to challenge any new forms of energy production -- including oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or new power plants and factories that emit fossil fuels. It also would jeopardize a highly promising arrangement in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, which contains an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Now is not the time to cut back on domestic oil production. With gas prices soaring to nearly $4 per gallon in some parts of the country, there's hardly been a better time to embark on energy exploration in the United States to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

"Alaska is America's last best frontier for domestic oil and natural gas," Ben Lieberman of The Heritage Foundation said in arguing against the polar bear's listing. "Closing off these potential resources would add to energy prices for decades to come and increase reliance on imports."

Worse still is that classifying the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act would put America's energy policy in the hands of activist judges. Environmentalists who want to halt construction of a power plant in Minnesota, for instance, could simply run to court complaining how it would harm the polar bear.

Liberal environmentalists who are lobbying for the polar bear's listing insist that it's necessary. "We hope that this decision marks the end of the Bush administration's delays and denial so that immediate action may be taken to protect polar bears from extinction," said Melanie Duchin of Greenpeace. Added Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity: "The polar bear should receive the protections it deserves under the Endangered Species Act, which is the first step toward saving the polar bear and the entire Arctic ecosystem from global warming."

But environmentalists conveniently ignore the facts about the bears' growing populations in Alaska, Canada, Russia and other countries. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, between 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live around the world today, up significantly from the 8,000 to 10,000 in the 1960s. The alarmist views about global warming clearly don't jive with the facts.

Our neighbors to the north in Canada also recognize the polar bear isn't threatened or endangered. In fact, Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, an independent group of scientists, said last month the bears deserve merely "special concern" status, the weakest classification in Canada.

"Based on the best available information at hand, there was insufficient reason to think that the polar bear was at imminent risk of extinction," wrote committee chairman Jeffrey Hutchings.

Some Canadians wouldn't even go as far as the scientists. The Inuit Indians depend on the polar bear for their livelihood. An endangerment listing would be devastating for the tribe. "We don't believe the scientists' information any more. [Hunters] will ignore new quotas," said Jayko Alooloo of the Hunters and Trappers Organization in Pond Inlet to The Canadian Press.

Rarely does the United States follow Canada's lead, but this is certainly a case to do just that. As pressure mounts on Secretary Kempthorne to act, he needs to weigh the devastating consequences that listing the bear could have on the American people. The polar bear's growing population, coupled with the likely litigation that would result from its listing, are sound reasons to leave it off the endangered species list.

Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation

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First appeared in Townhall.com