What is the Obama Administration thankful for, or at least hopeful for, this Thanksgiving? That controversial Thanksgiving Eve announcements won’t receive any media attention.
While most Americans were in transit Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Interior was finalizing its polar bear habitat protection, which sets aside 187,000 square miles of sea ice off the coast of Alaska as critical habitat. The announcement does not prohibit economic activity in these areas, but it could make it much more difficult for oil and gas development, since the designation requires federal officials to determine whether these activities “adversely affect the polar bear’s habitat and interfere with its recovery.”
The Wall Street Journal reports:
The Interior Department issued the final rules as Shell has been lobbying the Obama administration to by the end of the year approve its plans to drill in Alaska waters, especially the Chukchi Sea. The Chukchi and the Beaufort seas are home to the nation’s two big polar-bear populations, the Interior Department said, and thus provide critical habitat for species that the U.S. government has listed as threatened.
A critical habitat designation doesn’t automatically prohibit development. But the status does force the U.S. Interior Department to consult its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and get a determination about whether any activity it is authorizing will destroy or adversely modify a critical habitat.
“Industrializing the Chukchi sea adversely modifies that area as critical area for the polar bear,” said Brendan Cummings, who specializes in the issue at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “I don’t see how Interior can move forward with allowing oil development to occur in the Chukchi Sea and be consistent with what this designation should entail.”
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said that the company was reviewing the designation. “It’s our commitment to protecting the environment and the way of life on the North Slope,” she said. “As new consultations take place, we will continue to work with stakeholders and regulators to determine if additional mitigation measures are needed.”
Shell has already spent at least $3 billion on leases, equipment, training and oil-spill response planning in connection with plans to drill in the Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas. It had hoped to begin drilling this summer, but President Barack Obama halted those plans in May when he shut down drilling across a wide swath of U.S. coastal waters in response to the BP PLC oil spill.
It was the Bush administration that added polar bears to the list of “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), because alleged CO2 induced global warming will lead to losses in Arctic sea ice, denying polar bears their habitat.
Linking ESA and global warming has significant ramifications for the lives of the American people. Although the benefits to the polar bear provided by this decision are questionable, the designation will make it more difficult to expand energy supply, produce jobs, and collect royalty revenues off the coast of Alaska. Given the controversy that would have erupted over this decision, is anyone really surprised that the decision came on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving?
Nicolas Loris is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. Loris studies energy, environment and regulation issues such as the economic impacts of climate change legislation, a free market approach to nuclear energy and the effects of environmental policy on energy prices and the economy.
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