Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a call for common sense last week. He agreed with the Bush administration that the Endangered Species Act should not be used to drive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
His predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne, was right (if reluctant) to list the polar bears in 2008 as a "threatened" species under the act. Their Arctic ice habitat is diminishing, and the scientific consensus is that global warming is the culprit.
So there's logic in trying to limit greenhouse gases to protect the bears -- but the Endangered Species Act is not the way to do it. Using the act that way would cast a cloud over every federal decision and federal permit that involves the production of significant greenhouse gases anywhere in the country.
There's no question that Salazar and the Obama administration intend to protect the polar bear. Unlike their predecessors, they understand that the nation must act to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, but they recognize the Endangered Species Act is the wrong tool for the job. For Alaskans it might have meant a presumptive "no" to future oil and gas development on the North Slope.
As Secretary Salazar pointed out, there's more than one way to spare the bear. We don't need a blanket prohibition against creating any more greenhouse gases.
What we do need is an intelligent, wide-ranging policy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution without crippling the economy. That's the tough, fine line the administration and lawmakers have to walk.
Salazar's decision reflects that reality.
BOTTOM LINE: Protect polar bears, but not as an expedient means to drive energy and climate policy.