Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Friday that he will stick with the Bush administration's rule on polar bear protection, dealing a defeat to environmentalists by refusing to use the Endangered Species Act to enact sweeping policies on climate change.
The decision keeps intact the current policy from May 2008 that lists the polar bear as threatened due to the melting of Arctic ice, but specifically prohibits federal agencies from using the listing as a means of curbing carbon emissions.
"We must do all we can to help the polar bear recover, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change," Mr. Salazar said. "However, the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nations carbon emissions."
Instead, Mr. Salazar said, the Obama administration is working to develop "a comprehensive energy and climate strategy that curbs climate change and its impacts - including the loss of sea ice."
Environmental groups, which had mounted an intensive lobbying campaign aimed at using the act to restrict manufacturing and oil and gas development, made no secret of their disappointment.
"Salazars decision today is a gift to Big Oil and an affirmation of the pro-industry/anti-environmental policies of the Bush administration," said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "This is not the change Obama promised."
Energy companies, looking at tougher restrictions on development and production under a policy linking the diminishing sea-ice caps to carbon emissions, applauded Mr. Salazar's decision.
"We welcome the administrations decision because we, like Secretary Ken Salazar, recognize that the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nations carbon emissions," said American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard.
Reed Hopper, principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Institute, said the recession may have played a role in the Obama administration's decision.
"There might have been some economic decisions behind this," said Mr. Hopper. "You don't need another job-robbing policy on the books right now."
Congress had given Mr. Salazar special authority to decide whether to revoke the so-called 4(d) rule, which prohibits the Endangered Species Act from being used to link emissions in the lower 48 states to incidental harm done to the polar bear, including the deterioration of its habitat through global warming.
The rule, enacted by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, was aimed at preventing lawsuits that attempt, for example, to shut down coal plants in Pennsylvania as a result of reductions in polar ice.
"I think it would be very difficult for our scientists to be doing these evaluations of a cement plant in Georgia and the impact it's going to have on polar bear habitat," Mr. Salazar said. "I just don't think the ESA was ever set up organizationally with that contemplation in mind."
Eliminating the 4(d) rule also would have led to a lawsuit bonanza, Mr. Hopper said.
"If the 4(d) rule had not been in place, anyone could have sued anyone who was emitting carbon in some form and tried to connect it to the melting ice caps," he said. "It doesn't make sense. Nor does it make sense to turn over climate-change policy to the courts through litigious interest groups."
Even so, the 2008 polar bear ruling already has spawned its share of lawsuits. The state of Alaska and the Pacific Legal Institute are suing to take the polar bear off the threatened list. Meanwhile, environmental groups are challenging the 4(d) rule in court and attempting to upgrade the bear's listing from "threatened" to "endangered."
Also called into question were Mr. Salazar's "green" credentials. The former senator from Colorado who comes from a family of ranchers is considered a moderate on environmental issues and was an unpopular choice among liberals to be interior secretary.
"For Salazar to adopt Bush's polar bear extinction plan is confirming the worst fears of his tenure as secretary of the interior," Mr. Greenwald said. "Secretary Salazar would apparently prefer to please [Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin than to protect polar bears."
Interior officials said they would continue to work to protect the polar bear through conservation and adaptation strategies. They also noted that President Obama has included an additional $7.4 million in his proposed budget for polar bear conservation.
"Just because we can't do anything about climate change doesn't mean we can't do anything," said Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland.