Obama faces tricky decision on polar bear, climate change

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Just as President Obama faces a Congress that promises to be more skeptical of climate-related environmental regulation, a federal court has tossed a controversial case back in his lap: the polar bear.

The bear was the first species to be listed as threatened due to climate change, setting off a furor among the Alaska delegation -- Lisa Murkowski, among the critics, appears to be a winner in her write-in campaign. Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator, has tried to undermine the endangered-species finding.

The protection, granted in 2008 after much delay by the Bush administration, was not the most stringent under the Endangered Species Act. The bear is ‘threatened,’ not ‘endangered,’ which can make a big difference in regulation that follows listing under the act.

An ‘endangered’ designation, for instance, would have made it impossible for then-Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne to have passed a special rule that limited the scope of the listing, saying it could not be used to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming and melting ice in the Arctic Ocean.


Environmentalists sued almost immediately to boost the bear into the ‘endangered’ camp, and a federal judge agreed Wednesday that the Department of Interior should review the bear’s protected status, which will remain the same in the meantime.

That review could put Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar -- a bete noir to conservatives after his ban on deep-water drilling following the BP spill -- back into the hot seat.

If the Obama administration puts the bear into the endangered category, it potentially opens the door to litigation against new power plants and other industrial facilities that belch greenhouse gases far away from the bear’s territory -- an untested interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration last month proposed a vast area as ‘critical habitat’ for the polar bear: more than 200,000 square miles on the Alaska coast. That sparked immediate criticism from Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.

The new Congress, including presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, is decidedly less friendly to climate-change regulation. Republicans in the House of Representatives and elsewhere have made it clear they will examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate-related activities, which include its ‘endangerment’ ruling that found carbon dioxide emissions threatened human health by contributing to climate change.

The agency, however, is under order from a federal court to begin regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. But environmentalists note that it will be worth watching how EPA acts in the coming months, with a more hostile Congress looking over its shoulder.

The administration was notably quiet about the decision Wednesday.

-- Geoff Mohan

Related: Obama revisits energy policy, cap-and-trade and EPA regulation