The federal listing of polar bears as a threatened species so outraged Alaska lawmakers, they considered spending more than a million dollars for a public relations effort to reverse the decision.
A request for proposals from public relations firms now has more modest goals: a conference assessing what the Endangered Species Act will cost Alaska, and whether a public relations campaign would be useful.
A legislative request for proposals from public relations firms was modified three times since mid-December. Proposals have been in hand since Jan. 20.
For a fee of up to $1.5 million, lawmakers are looking for someone who can put on a conference in Anchorage, gather panelists to speak on the effects of the ESA and recommend whether Alaska should embrace a public relations effort to counter its negative economic effects.
"We're not going to reverse the listing," said John Bitney, an aide to Rep. John Harris, chairman of the Legislative Council, which will make a decision on proposals. "I don't think we expected that."
With recent success by environmental groups petitioning for Alaska species to be listed, and seeking to block offshore petroleum exploration with lawsuits demanding that federal agencies do proper environmental reviews, Alaska lawmakers worry that the state's primary source of revenue is threatened.
As much as 90 percent of Alaska's general fund revenue is generated by the petroleum industry. Lawmakers fear restrictions to protect polar bears, Cook Inlet beluga whales or other listed species could diminish prospects for oil that could be shipped south through the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline or for natural gas that could fill a proposed multibillion dollar pipeline.
Majority lawmakers in the Alaska Legislature have been frank about their skepticism that polar bears are in danger from global warming, which they have characterized as a blip in the Earth's weather history. Both the House and Senate in 2007 passed resolutions urging the Bush administration to reject listing polar bears.
"The application for this listing is based on the unfounded, unproven scientific hypothesis that climate change is caused by human activity, in the form of increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," said Harris, who was House speaker at the time.
Lawmakers later appropriated money to back a lawsuit filed by former Gov. Sarah Palin to reverse the listing.
Harris, who recently pulled out of the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, declined to be interviewed about the public relations contract. Bitney said Harris is reticent to speak about proposals under review.
A conference to review the polar bear listing process and the science behind it has been criticized as a sham with preordained conclusions.
. Kassie Siegel, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney who drafted the petition to list polar bears, said lawmakers likely would tap into professional climate skeptics.
"It's been really well demonstrated that there's an orchestrated disinformation campaign to confuse people about climate change. There has been for years," she said.
The legislature's first request called for a conference that would have drummed up ammo to be used by state attorneys in the polar bear lawsuit. Respondents were to outline how they would support the state's position, enlist the assistance of other states' wildlife agencies and help prepare testimony before Congress.
That may have strayed into the governor's jurisdiction, Bitney said, and the proposal request was modified.
The final version asks companies to evaluate whether a public relations campaign based on the conclusions reached by the conference panel could diminish negative economic effects of the Endangered Species Act.
The conference would still review how the federal government concluded polar bears are endangered. The state claims polar bears should not be listed because their numbers have not crashed.
Palin raised the same issue. George W. Bush's Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, said he considered all of Palin's points and rejected them. The polar bear listing, he said, was based on three findings: sea ice is vital to polar bear survival, the polar bear's sea-ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades, and computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future.
Siegel said the polar bear listing process was exhaustive and likened lawmakers who reject the scientific findings to people who believe the Earth is flat.
"It's like holding a conference to try to disprove the theory of gravity because you wish that you could fly," she said.
Bitney said the motive behind Siegel's group clearly is to shut down oil development in the offshore Arctic. Lawmakers may choose not to award a contract, he said, but want a voice in the management decisions.
"At the end of the day I think what we're hoping for is a chance to bring these proposals out in the open and let's just see that they offered and what they're suggesting and see if it's worth going forward on," Bitney said.