On thin ice

First things first. The U.S. Interior Department should stick to that useful truism instead of approving oil drilling in polar bear habitat before deciding whether the bears need protection from such drilling.

Last week, the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was delaying its decision on whether the steady loss of Arctic ice floes, caused by climate change, should qualify the polar bear as a threatened species. Threatened status would set off various protections -- most important, determining critical habitat for the bears’ survival.

Yet there was no delay the week before, when the Mineral Management Service, another arm of the agency, decided to allow oil and gas exploration leases in nearly 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska, prime polar bear habitat that has been among the areas most affected by global warming. The lease sale is scheduled for Feb. 6.

The Interior Department has been all too eager to sell mineral rights regardless of environmental considerations. But this latest sale, combined with the postponed decision on the polar bear, is enough to raise even an oil baron’s eyebrows. Listing the bear as threatened would put the Chukchi lease sale on choppy waters; but what if the bear isn’t listed until a few days after the sale takes place? Oil exploration might not affect the bears particularly, but the Mineral Management Service isn’t the entity capable of making the determination. In fact, no one can make that decision without the kind of study that would be required if the bears were listed as threatened.


Admittedly, the decision on the polar bear is a thornier one than Fish and Wildlife has faced before. It would be the first species listed as imperiled as a result of global warming, and the implications are complex. But the solution is simple. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has the authority and the obligation to halt the Chukchi lease sale until the decision about the listing is made and the necessary environmental studies are completed. This might sound insane given prices at the gas pump, but exploration leases are long-term investments, many iffy years from providing new sources of fuel. Even then, any finds would provide only a very temporary palliative to the nation’s energy woes.

Reliance on fossil fuels has been one of the major causes of the global warming that now forces the government to consider the polar bears’ plight. It would be too painful an irony if the Interior Department allowed that same reliance to ravage the bears’ already diminishing habitat.