May 6, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Protect the People, Not Just the Bears

Just when we need it most, more of our domestic oil and gas may soon be put off-limits due to yet another overreaction to the fallacy of global warming.  Next week the Interior Departmet will have to decide if it's going to declare polar bears an endangered  species.  If it does, more oil will be off limits, deepening  America's dependence on foreign oil and guaranteeing further surges in the price of gasoline. 

The new restrictions on drilling would result from the campaign to "save the polar bear".  But they're not just a by-product-they're a key motive for that campaign. 

The Interior Department is under court order to announce by May 15 whether polar bears will be designated an endangered species-despite their thriving population-because global warming supposedly will melt all the ice where they live on off-shore ice packs.

That designation could jeopardize drilling in the bears' oil-rich habitat, especially including the new lease in the Chukchi Sea area off Alaska's coast.  The U.S. government's Minerals Management Service estimates we could recover 15 billion barrels of oil from that lease--which equates to 4-5 years of U.S. oil imports-plus comparable huge quantities of natural gas.  Bidders have already agreed to pay the U.S. government $2.6 billion just to explore this area.

So the stakes are high when we ask:  are polar bears truly endangered, or are they just a convenient species for the environmental groups that have orchestrated a combined lawsuit and public relations campaign?

The Center for Biological Diversity originated the lawsuit to declare polar bears as endangered.  Their website acknowledges that their goal is more than protecting the bears from a claimed threat of global warming.  CBD brags they have fought since at least 2001 to block oil and gas drilling in polar bear habitat, and claims credit for preventing drilling last year in the Beaufort Sea area (an area with projected reserves that could replace two years of foreign oil imports).

Are polar bears supposedly endangered because they are rare?  No.  There are an estimated 20,000-25,000 wild polar bears today, up from an estimated 8,000-10,000 in the late 1960s.

Most of them are in Canada.  Just a few days ago, Canada declined requests to list polar bears as an endangered species.  Canada instead continued the same status it gave the bears in 1991, a modest ranking of "special concern," one step below "threatened" and two steps below "endangered."

Indeed, polar bears are so plentiful that Canada and Greenland allow them to be hunted.   Canada has an annual quota just over 500.  Greenland permits a harvest of 150.

But is global warming a new threat to the bears?  Not according to the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who has led the formal opposition to listing polar bears as "threatened" or "endangered."  It is rank speculation, she maintains, to claim that polar region ice caps will be melted by global warming and wreck the habitat of polar bears.  She wrote the Department of the Interior that a ruling based on such speculation would "open the floodgates" to never-ending petitions that thousands of species deserve equal protection. 

Environmentalists have made the polar bear "a metaphor in the highly charged climate change debate," Palin wrote. And she noted that numerous laws and international agreements already provide multiple special protections to the bears, without the huge potential economic damage that the new proposal could bring upon the U.S.

The governor's comments underscore an ugly aspect of the global warming/climate change debate, possibly even uglier than the phony pretense that "all scientists agree" that mankind is wrecking our climate.

What's ugly is the systematic abuse of poorly-drafted environmental laws and regulations, aided by activist judges and unchecked by cowering politicians.  Under this system, the opinions of low-level bureaucrats are given deference by the courts while enormous costs of environmental regulations are ignored.

Democratic principles are bypassed when our courts dictate wholesale and incredibly expensive societal change, all under the noble pretense of saving us from ourselves. 

There's still a way to stop things before they get worse.  Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne is the key.  He has the ability to determine that polar bears are not a threatened or endangered species, and he certainly should do so.  That decision would be a breath of fresh air, which is what environmental law certainly needs!

It's not unkind to polar bears to give respectful treatment to the needs of humans.  The bears are thriving now, and the supposed threat is based on over-dramatized claims about the extent of global warming.  Our planet has always gone through cycles of climate fluctuations, and it always will.  We can certainly bear with it.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Energy and Environment

First appeared on HumanEvents.com