WASHINGTON -- Less than a month after declaring polar bears a threatened species because of global warming, the Bush administration is allowing oil companies to affect them in small ways while exploring for oil and natural gas in the Chukchi Sea over the next five years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service issued new regulations providing legal protection to seven oil companies planning to search for oil and gas in the Chukchi off the northwestern coast of Alaska if "small numbers" of polar bears or Pacific walruses are incidentally harmed by their activities.
Environmentalists said the new regulations give oil companies a blank check to harass the polar bear.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said exploration will have a negligible effect on the bears' population.
"The oil and gas industry in operating under the kind of rules they have operated under for 15 years has not been a threat to the species," H. Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director, told The Associated Press on Friday. "It was the ice melting and the habitat going away that was a threat to the species over everything else."
About 2,000 of the 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic live in and around the Chukchi Sea, where the government in February auctioned oil leases to Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc., Conoco Phillips Co. and five other companies for $2.6 billion. Over objections from environmentalists and members of Congress, the sale occurred before the bear was classified as threatened in May.
Polar bears are naturally curious creatures and sensitive to changes in their environment. Vibrations, noises, unusual scents and the presence of industrial equipment can disrupt their quest for prey and their efforts to raise their young in snow dens.
The Fish and Wildlife Service made no secret that oil and gas operations would continue in polar bear territory when it announced May 14 that melting sea ice threatened the bear's survival. But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne assured the public that the bear population would not be harmed.
"Now, three weeks later, Interior issues a rule under the act that we view as a blank check to harass the polar bear in the Chukchi Sea," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He added that his group believes the new regulations are illegal.
Exploring in the Chukchi Sea's 29.7 million acres -- about the size of Pennsylvania -- will require up to five drill ships, one or two icebreakers, a barge, a tug and two helicopter flights per day, according to the government. Oil companies will also be making hundred of miles of ice roads and trails along the coastline.
OIL COMPANY RULES
The seven companies will be required to map out the locations of polar bear dens, train their employees about the bears' habits and take other measures to minimize clashes with them. In exchange, the companies are legally protected if their operations unintentionally harm the bears. Any bear deaths would still warrant an investigation and could result in penalty under the law.
"These rules are essentially an insurance policy," said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an industry group that in 2005 requested the new regulation. "They say if you conduct your operations in accordance to the requirement in this rule, you will not be held liable for the take of the bears."
Administration and industry officials said oil companies enjoyed similar status in the Chukchi Sea from 1991 to 1996 and in the Beaufort Sea since 1993 and there was no effect on polar bear populations.
Polar bears and oil -- a timeline
Recent actions concerning polar bears and Alaska oil operations:
FEBRUARY 2005: Environmental groups petition government for Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears.
AUGUST 2005: Oil industry seeks protections from legal liability if polar bears in Chukchi Sea are harmed.
DECEMBER 2005: Environmentalists sue Interior Department for delaying Endangered Species Act decision on polar bears.
JUNE 2007: Interior Department proposes liability protections sought by oil industry.
FEBRUARY 2008: Interior Department auctions Chukchi Sea leases to seven oil companies for $2.6 billion.
MAY 2008: Interior Department lists polar bear as threatened species, a less-serious category than endangered.
JUNE 2008: Interior Department issues regulations allowing incidental harm to "small numbers" of polar bears in Chukchi Sea.