WASHINGTON, April 17, 2012 — The Obama administration announced today that it is reissuing a Bush-era regulation that sharply limits protections for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Both the current proposal and the previous Bush rule exclude activities occurring outside the range of polar bears — such as the greenhouse gas emissions of industrial polluters like coal plants — from regulations that could help stop the bear's extinction. Today's announcement comes as a result of a court order that struck down the Bush rule in October 2011.
Polar bears were the first species added to the endangered and threatened species list solely because of threats from global warming. Regulations issued under the Endangered Species Act must provide for the "conservation" of threatened species. Notably, the press release issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing the new proposed rule today did not mention greenhouse gases or climate change at all, while the very purpose of the rule is to exempt greenhouse emissions from the reach of the Act.
"If polar bears are to survive we have to directly confront the greatest threat to them: our greenhouse gas emissions," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "But the Obama administration seems to be living in a fantasy world where the way to solve a difficult problem is to deny its existence."
The proposed rule severely undermines protection for polar bears by exempting from portions of the Endangered Species Act all activities that occur outside of the bears' range. But the species is endangered precisely because of activities occurring outside the Arctic — namely the emission of greenhouse gases and resulting warming that is leading to the rapid disappearance of summer sea ice.
"With their sea-ice habitat rapidly disappearing, polar bears need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act," said Siegel. "President Obama's proposal for these magnificent and imperiled animals is a gift to Big Oil and an affirmation of the pro-industry policies of the Bush government. When it comes to saving urgently endangered polar bears, the only ‘change' Obama has delivered is more climate change."
The special rule also reduces the protections the bear would otherwise receive in Alaska from oil-industry activities in its habitat.
When the polar bear was listed as a threatened species in May 2008 (following a petition by the Center), the Bush administration simultaneously issued a special rule under section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act. A similar rule was finalized in December 2008 and defended by the Obama administration in court. On Oct. 17, 2011, a federal district court judge struck it down owing to the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to conduct an environmental review of the rule's impacts.
The challenge was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife. Today's proposal, in response to the 2011 court order, triggers a 60-day public comment period, with the rule scheduled for finalization by the end of 2012.
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