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Bush drilling plan could threaten polar bears, panel chairman says

  • Story Highlights
  • Bush administration set to sell oil drilling rights in polar bear habitat February 6
  • House chairman wants to block sale until impact on bears can be determined
  • Interior Department says drilling is compatible with "stewardship responsibilities"
  • Proposal being considered to add polar bears to endangered species list
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A House committee chairman on Thursday denounced the Bush administration's planned sale of oil drilling rights in a prime polar bear habitat in Alaska, saying its impact on the bear population is unknown.

Randall Luthi, left, and Dale Hall testify about the future of polar bears as demonstrators wear bear costumes.

Rep. Ed Markey, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, spoke out against the White House's planned sale, set for February 6.

He said the drilling should not go forward until the impact of climate change and invasive industrial activity on the animals is known.

Markey's committee heard testimony about how global warming and drilling activity would affect the polar bear population on Wednesday.

"We shouldn't be selling the drilling rights in this important polar bear habitat before deciding how we are going to protect them," Markey said as the hearing opened.

"It seems that every time there is a choice between extraction and extinction in this administration, extraction wins. This must not be the case for the polar bear." Learn about polar bears »

Markey said he had prepared legislation that would require the Bush administration to protect the animals before drilling could begin.

"In the most thorough study to date, an Interior Department scientist ... determined that under current trends, disappearing sea ice would result in a two-thirds drop in the world population of polar bears, resulting in the disappearance of polar bears from Alaska by 2050," said a statement released by Markey.

"One of the population centers considered under the 'greatest' threat is the Chukchi Sea habitat, according to the study."

That habitat is included in the area where the drilling rights would be sold.

In December, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which included a provision calling for Congress to pass legislation opening access to "domestic energy sources such as the outer continental shelf and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," according to a fact sheet on the White House Web site.

Randall Luthi, the director of the Minerals Management Service -- part of the Department of Interior -- said Thursday in the hearing that his agency "believes that energy resource development can be achieved consistent with the stewardship responsibilities."

"And believe me, we take those stewardship responsibilities very seriously," Luthi told lawmakers.

But Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Washington, pointed out that even in the Interior Department's own environmental impact statement on the matter, it noted that drilling and oil activity in the region had a 33 to 51 percent chance of creating a spill.

"Our overall finding is that due to the magnitude of potential mortality as a result of a large oil spill, the proposed action would likely result in significant impacts to polar bears if a large spill occurred," Inslee quoted from the report.

On January 7, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was working "diligently to reach a final decision on the proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act," according to a statement on its Web site.

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The agency said it expected to reach a decision "within the next month."

Such a deadline would likely fall after the February 6 drilling rights sale. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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