Enviro-Whackos Win Another Round

You might not think that polar bears could effect decisions about whether to build a refinery in Texas, but after today’s partial cave-in to environmentalists and global warming alarmists by the U.S. Interior Department, you’d be wrong.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced on Wednesday that the polar bear will be listed as a “threatened species” based on a “loss of sea ice (which) threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat”. Under the Endangered Species Act, (“ESA”), classifying a species as “threatened” is one step short of the “endangered” classification, and means that the species is “likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future.”
Kempthorne’s comments included this description of their thought process: “Today’s decision is based on three findings. First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival. Second, the polar bear’s sea-ice habitat has dramatically melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future. Because polar bears are vulnerable to this loss of habitat, they are, in my judgment, likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future — in this case 45 years.”

Today represents the first instance of a species’ future being linked to global warming, and therefore the first instance of the use of an animal to curtail developments in the entire US economy (as opposed to very local effects of trying to protect a particular species of fish or field mouse.)

Kempthorne also noted that “Polar bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has more stringent protections for polar bears than the Endangered Species Act does. The oil and gas industry has been operating in the Arctic for decades in compliance with these stricter protections. The Fish and Wildlife Service says that no polar bears have been killed due to encounters associated with oil and gas operations.”

The proposal to list the polar bear as endangered, and the lawsuit which forced the Interior Department to make the decision by this week, was put forward by environmental activists whose goal is to use the polar bear to try to put the breaks on any activity which they think might contribute to “greenhouse gases” and in particular on any development of energy resources.

Kempthorne is aware of this threat to our economy and that would certainly have factored into his decision not to list the polar bear as “endangered”, an action which would effectively have halted oil and gas development in the Arctic. In his press conference, he made it clear that Wednesday’s action “should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.”

But believing that environmentalists and their allies in Congress won’t try to do just that is much like saying that North Korea’s deceptive use of the “six-party talks” to actually try to accomplish their real goal of building a nuclear arsenal is “wholly inappropriate”. Of course it is, but what is actually happening and not what is “appropriate” is what we should be concerned with.

The science and data surrounding the issue bears (pun intended) discussion: In his comments, Kempthorne discussed arctic sea ice being “39% lower than the long-term average from 1979 to 2000”. 1979 is frequently the first year quoted because prior to that there is not reliable data, and even subsequent data is somewhat suspect as it is generated by satellite. Furthermore, as Kenneth Green points out in his paper for the American Enterprise Institute, 1979 “coincide(ed) with a period of climate warming, which makes it inherently nonrepresentative of longer time periods.”

Yet even accepting the apparently solid evidence of lessening arctic sea ice, particularly in summer, two major problems with Kempthorne’s logic remain. One is that arctic ice melting is a function of global warming (and that global warming is being caused by greenhouse gases, a particularly dubious claim with increasing new data pointing toward it being incorrect.) A NASA report from October, 2007, says that “the rapid decline in winter perennial ice the past two years was caused by unusual winds.”

Second, just as climate models can be (and probably are mostly) wrong, models of polar bear population response to sea ice changes are equally subject to widely varying predictions based on small changes in input variables. In other words, if you change your guesses a little bit about what’s happening now and how the bears are reacting, you can get a very different answer as to what will happen later. Given the apparent 30-year trend in lessening arctic sea ice, one would expect to see a downward trend in polar bear populations during that time. Although the bear population is tricky to measure, its population appears to have been remarkably stable around 25,000 animals for two decades. If declining sea ice has not caused declining numbers of bears, where is the justification for assuming that computer model-based predictions of more sea ice declines would then suddenly lead to near-extinction for the animals?

The major scientific study provided in support of Kempthorne’s decision can be read HERE. While the summary does mention the possibility of a sharp decline in the polar bear population within 45 years, that was assuming “conditions remained similar to 2004-2005.” Somehow Kempthorne neglected to mention these other summary statements: “If conditions were to remain similar to 2001-2003, the population would increase over the next 45-100 years” and “In a stochastic environment with a frequency of bad years equal to the observed value over the period 1979-2006, the population would probably decline to between 1% and 10% of its current size before the end of the century.”

Environmentalist groups have used issues like “disruption of wildlife” with great success to stop oil and gas exploration. At a time of $4/gallon gasoline, these attacks on sources of energy for America aren’t cute anymore. Areas around the Alaska, as well as the US and Canadian arctic hold massive quantities of oil and natural gas. One estimate for just the Beaufort-Mackenzie Basin in Canada is for “7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 67 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.” In 2001, the US Geological Survey’s mean estimate of oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve’s (ANWR) Coastal Plain at 10.3 billion recoverable barrels, with up to 27.8 billion barrels of “oil in place”. The USGS also noted that “Seven to 12 years are estimated to be required from an approval to explore and develop to first production from the ANWR Area.”

Today’s decision by Interior Secretary Kempthorne gives the greatest weapon yet to environmentalist radicals, opponents of the energy industry, and anti-capitalists of all stripes to use dubious claims about the future of an species (which seems to be doing just fine) to attack the very development of energy resources that the world most needs at this time. Expect lawsuits to be filed against energy development or refining projects not just in near the arctic, but anywhere in the US as the environmental extremists test the limits of their new-found power and the willingness of courts to buy into the junk science of global warming and the junk legislation of the Endangered Species Act.