WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was a no-show Wednesday in front of a Senate committee seeking an explanation for why his agency has been slow to decide whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Kempthorne, summoned in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, refused to testify. Instead, he sent a letter and spoke personally to several of the committee members. He also pledged to testify once he had issued a decision, now three months late.
"Careful deliberation will not imperil the survival of the polar bear, it will better ensure that the decision is legally sound and based upon the best available science and the requirements of the law," Kempthorne wrote in his letter.
But that was not enough for the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, who said she was "disappointed" with Kempthorne's behavior -- especially since he had been on the panel while in the Senate. Boxer scolded Kempthorne's record on endangered species designations, pointing out that he had yet to classify a single species as endangered during his tenure as interior secretary.
"The Bush administration does not have the right or the discretion to decide to not carry out the law," Boxer said. "I guess maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I always learned that when laws are passed by Congress, and signed by the president, they must be obeyed. But that's not what's happening here."
ACTS PRESSED BY LAWSUITS
Every step of the process toward listing the bears as threatened has required environmentalists to file lawsuits to persuade the administration to act, said Kassie Siegel at the Center for Biological Diversity. There is still time to do something about bears, Siegel said, "but the window to act is now."
Some Republican members of the panel said they were concerned about the effects of listing polar bears, since the animals are losing their habitat because of global warming caused by worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
The hearing was not about "protecting the bear," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee. Rather, it was about using the Endangered Species Act to "achieve global warming policy that special interest groups can not otherwise achieve through the legislative process."
"The ESA is simply not equipped to regulate economy-wide greenhouse gases, nor does the Fish and Wildlife Service have the expertise to be a pollution control agency," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department, first proposed in 2007 to list polar bears, at the prompting of environmental groups. The agency was scheduled to issue a decision on polar bears at the beginning of January, but postponed it because its scientists needed more time to analyze studies from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Those government studies show that as many as two-thirds of the world population of the bears could disappear by mid-century as their habitat melts, leaving a small population of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic. Bears could disappear from U.S. waters, including the Chukchi Sea, where the Interior Department recently issued $2.7 billion in oil and gas leases.
Environmentalists complained at Wednesday's hearing that the timing of the leases remains suspect. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. accused the administration of dragging its feet on a polar bear decision so that leases could "sneak in" before an endangered species listing held them up.
"It looks a little bit to this observer as if the endangered species determination was slow walked on purpose," Whitehouse said.
Kempthorne in his letter downplayed any connection between the delays in listing polar bears and the recent oil leases in the Chukchi Sea. The threat to the polar bear is "receding sea ice," Kempthorne wrote, and oil and gas activities "do not threaten the species throughout all or a significant portion of its range."
Kempthorne also wrote that if the polar bear is listed, any oil and gas exploration and development would be subject to the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws governing such activity in protected habitat.