- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

Several prominent environmental groups and Alaskan tribal governments are suing the federal government to block oil and natural-gas development in a polar-bear habitat.

The environmentalists and tribes say that when the congressionally approved sale of nearly 20 million acres of public land in Chukchi Sea proceeds Wednesday, the court should void any drilling or development to ensure federal laws are respected.

“The Bush administration is rushing ahead to give oil companies as much of the Chukchi Sea as it can, but they are not disclosing the full impact of oil development on the people and wildlife that depend on the Chukchi,” said Eric Jorgensen, an attorney for EarthJustice.

But Interior Department officials say they intend to move forward with the sales Wednesday, and have already done a thorough review of whether species will be adversely affected.

“They have to go 25 miles out to sea before they can do any exploration or development,” said one Interior Department official, who requested anonymity because of the pending litigation.

“There are lots of steps along the way like the Marine Mammal Protection Act that we must comply with, and that is much more stringent than the Endangered Species Act when it comes to protection of species,” the official said.

The groups, several of which want the polar bear listed as an endangered species, and American Indians say in the lawsuit filed Thursday that not enough studies have been done on how the energy development and possible oil spills will affect the habitat of the polar bears and protected marine life.

The National Audubon Society says it’s home to one-tenth of the world’s population of polar bears.

Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society, says the habitat of walruses and the endangered bowhead whales are also at risk. Interior Department officials are still studying whether polar bears will be named as an endangered species, due in part to global warming.

“It’s regrettable that we now must turn to the courts to protect the polar bear from our own Interior Department,” said Miss Loyless, who called the lease sale “about as shameless as this administration has been on the environment.”

The suit was filed Thursday against Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in the U.S. District Court of Alaska by the Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society as well as Alaskan tribal governments.

Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the lawsuit impedes his state’s ability to develop energy and “could have a chilling and long-standing effect on all resource development in the United States.”

“This would be a severe threat to our domestic energy production efforts and national energy security,” Mr. Young said.

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