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For Immediate Release, January 13, 2011

Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Polar Bear Critical Habitat From Oil Development

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity today formally notified Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that it intends to sue the Interior Department for its failure to protect polar bear critical habitat from harmful oil and gas development in Alaska. The Center is demanding that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all agencies within the Interior Department — immediately analyze the impacts of drilling for oil in the polar bears’ protected habitat and take measures to avoid such impacts.

“Critical habitat has a proven track record of protecting species. Studies have shown that species with designated critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering than those without,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center. “But if polar bear critical habitat is to actually help polar bears survive the very difficult future we have given them, the Interior Department simply cannot authorize offshore oil development in the middle of that very same habitat.”

Last month, Interior designated more than 187,000 square miles in and near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in Alaska as polar bear critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. But the same month, Interior reaffirmed a Bush-era plan that authorized oil leasing in the newly designated habitat area in the Chukchi. It is also considering allowing Shell to drill in the bear’s habitat in the Beaufort Sea this summer.

“Unfortunately, Interior seems profoundly confused about whether to actually protect polar bear critical habitat or sacrifice it to oil companies,” said Noblin.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that any actions they authorize, fund or carry out do not damage or destroy critical habitat. The polar bear habitat designation triggers a legal obligation for Secretary Salazar to reexamine all ongoing and pending federally authorized oil-industry actions affecting the polar bear’s habitat, including recent and proposed lease sales, exploration plans, development plans, seismic surveys and “take” authorizations that allow the harming of bears. 

This week the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon and Offshore Drilling released a report concluding that the oil industry is not prepared to deal with a large spill in the Arctic and recommending that no drilling be allowed to go forward until the industry can demonstrate the ability to clean up spills in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean.

“Given that it is impossible to clean up an oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic, if Secretary Salazar ultimately approves drilling in polar bear critical habitat he will have demonstrated that all his promises of reform following the Gulf disaster ultimately amount to nothing,” Noblin said.

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