Washington - California Sen. Barbara Boxer accused the Bush administration Wednesday of delaying a decision on whether to list the polar bear as an endangered species so it could finish its oil lease sales in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, where one-fifth of the world's polar bears live.
"The administration went ahead and accepted bids, even though oil and gas activities may disturb polar bears making a den, and even though an oil spill could pose big risks to the polar bear population," said Boxer, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The Interior Department has been under fire from environmentalists and lawmakers for missing a deadline under federal law to decide whether to list the polar bear as endangered.
The polar bear is the first species being considered for a listing as endangered because of global warming. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey predict that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be extinct by 2050 as the Arctic sea ice melts.
Boxer called Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to testify at a hearing on the polar bear listing decision, but he notified her Tuesday that he would not appear as a witness.
In a letter released Wednesday, Kempthorne said he could not testify because his agency is in litigation with environmental groups over the polar bear decision. Kempthorne, a former Idaho Republican senator who once served on the committee, pledged to come back to discuss the decision after it is announced.
Boxer noted that Cabinet secretaries often testify before Congress while their agencies are in litigation. She called Kempthorne's absence "a slap at this committee and a slap at the American people who care about this."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species in January 2007. The agency is required under federal law to make a determination within a year, but Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall announced on Jan. 7 of this year that he would delay a decision by up to a month to study new government data on polar bears and sea ice trends.
Environmentalists saw an ulterior motive: The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service was holding a Feb. 6 oil lease sale in Anchorage for a 46,000-square-mile area of the Chukchi Sea along Alaska's northwest coast. The lease sale brought in $2.6 billion, with Shell and ConocoPhillips staking the biggest claims.
In his letter, Kempthorne denied that the lease sale played any role in delaying the agency's decision on the polar bear. He said Fish and Wildlife Service scientists had concluded that offshore drilling would not pose a significant risk to the polar bear population in the area.
However, several witnesses at Boxer's hearing Wednesday disputed Kempthorne's statement.
Douglas Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation, said the Minerals Management Service's environmental impact statement calculated a 33 to 51 percent chance of a major oil spill from new offshore drilling, which it concluded would have a significant impact on polar bears.
"Obviously, they have a very thick fur, and if it becomes soiled by oil, they immediately lose the ability to insulate. As a result, they can go hypothermic and die," Inkley said.
He said polar bears also can be killed by ingesting small amounts of oil.
Republicans on the committee warned that listing the polar bear as endangered could have serious economic implications. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said it could force the Fish and Wildlife Service to weigh in on every new power plant or highway project if the emissions might affect the polar bear's chances of survival.
"Virtually every human activity that involved the release of carbon into the atmosphere would have to be regulated by the federal government," Barrasso said.
Boxer said it would be much more devastating for the government to do nothing as global warming pushes the polar bear and other species toward extinction.
"What if my friend found out that human life itself was threatened by climate change?" Boxer said. "Is he going to sit here and say, 'Well, this is terrible, we can't take any steps to protect my constituents' lives because it would hurt our economy?' "
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a chief sponsor of a climate change bill that may get a Senate vote in June, said Kempthorne told him this week that he would have a decision before early summer. Warner said he urged the secretary to list the polar bear as endangered.
"I think we have an obligation toward this extraordinary animal," Warner said. "It's America's panda bear, and all Americans are in love with it."
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle