SAN FRANCISCO - February 13 - Polar bears and walrus are facing harm in the Arctic from expanding oil and gas exploration because federal regulations don't assess the combined threat of such activity and global warming, according to a suit filed today in federal court by environmental groups.
The suit challenges U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regulations that allow harm to the animals through oil and gas activities in the Beaufort Sea and adjacent coastal plains where global warming is shrinking ice sheets critical to survival of the species.
Polar bears can suffer harm from activities such as drilling, seismic work and transportation which disturb feeding, cause abandonment of maternity dens and generally disrupt polar bear life cycles, said Earthjustice attorney Clayton Jernigan, who filed the suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment.
The FWS didn't assess impacts in the context of a warming Arctic, and failed to demand that appropriate protective measures be taken by those engaged in exploration, said Kassie Siegel, Climate Program Director for the Center. Siegel was lead author of the petition that convinced the federal government to propose listing the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.
"The government is well aware that global warming threatens polar bears with extinction and is transforming the entire Arctic ecosystem, yet these regulations fail to take this into account,'' Siegel said. The FWS has identified global climate change as the principal threat to polar bear survival.
Recent research confirms that global warming degrades the bears' physical condition, reduces cub survival and is linked to drowning, starvation and cannibalism among the bears, said Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment. He said the suit is aimed at preventing oil and gas exploration from further hurting the animals.
"The FWS must take a hard look at the impacts of both a changing Arctic environment and increased oil and gas development before authorizing further harm to polar bears and walrus," Sheard said.
By issuing such regulations without taking global warming into account, the suit says, FWS violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The suit asks that the court declare the FWS regulations unlawful and require the agency to do a thorough analysis of how global warming and oil exploration and development affect polar bears and walrus. The suit also aims to guarantee that any new regulations be based on such analysis to assure the animals' safety.
The suit was filed today (Feb. 13) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.