ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Two environmental groups filed notice on Monday that they plan to sue the federal government for not imposing new regulations on oil development in Alaska’s Arctic waters as part of offering protective status to polar bears.
Last month, polar bears were listed as threatened, a protective status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also enacted a rule precluding oil operators from any new impediments other than those already required by Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment said the Interior Department is violating the Endangered Species Act by giving oil companies exploring the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas a pass from additional regulation.
Since the rapidly warming Arctic climate, not oil development, is the cause of the ice-dependent polar bears’ woes, oil explorers should not face additional regulatory hurdles, according to Kempthorne.
“The only thing keeping pace with the drastic melting of the Arctic sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of the Interior is rushing to sell off polar bear habitat for fossil fuel development,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement.
The environmental groups, in their 60-day notice of their intent to sue, said the Interior Department must take steps to curb oil development’s direct impacts nonetheless.
As offshore development expands, polar bears are at risk from noise and other disturbances caused by vessels, aircraft and drilling platforms, the deafening blasts of seismic tests and multiple oil and chemical spills, the groups said.
The center and Pacific Environment are two of the three groups that filed the original petition and lawsuit that prompted the threatened listing for the polar bear.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates polar bears, said he had not yet seen Monday’s notice and could not comment specifically on it.
“In the finding for the Endangered Species listing, oil and gas development was not seen as one of the critical factors threatening the polar bear,” said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the service in Alaska.
Alaska’s federally managed outer continental shelf, long considered too remote and costly to drill, is emerging as a hot prospect for new oil and gas exploration.
A February lease sale for the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska drew a record $2.66 billion in high bids, with $2.1 billion of bids coming from Royal Dutch Shell Plc.
BP, meanwhile, is moving to develop its Liberty prospect in the Beaufort into what would be the first producing Alaska oil field located entirely in federal waters.
Editing by Daisuke Wakabayashi, Gary Hill
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