By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government must decide first if polar bears are threatened by climate change before it opens part of their icy habitat to oil drilling, the head of a congressional environment panel said on Thursday.
The decision whether to list the big Arctic bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was supposed to happen last week but was postponed for up to 30 days.
That means it could come after the government offers 29.4 million acres in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast in a sale of oil leases on February 6.
"Rushing to allow drilling in polar bear habitat before protecting the bear would be the epitome of this administration's backward energy policy, a policy of drill first and ask questions later," Rep. Ed Markey said at a hearing of the House (of Representatives) Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which he chairs.
Testifying on the matter were two key Bush administration officials: Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service that has been investigating the polar bear's status, and Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, which announced the oil lease sale last week.
World polar bear populations are currently stable, but U.S. scientists predict that two-thirds of them could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true. Polar bears live and hunt on sea ice; when it melts they either drown or are forced onto land, where they are inefficient hunters.
This is the first time global warming has been a factor in arguing for threatened status for any species in the United States and that makes the decision more complex.
Instead of the limited measures required to rescue a species threatened by a drained swamp or denuded forest, polar bears depend on sea ice. That ice is melting at an accelerated rate, at least partly because of human-generated global warming, scientists have reported.
"DO SOMETHING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE"
Hall has previously acknowledged there is no substantial scientific uncertainty, as defined under the Endangered Species Act, about the polar bear case. He said the volume of material from scientists and public hearings caused the delay in making the decision on whether to list the bear as threatened.
Under congressional questioning, Hall noted that 20 percent of polar bear habitat has disappeared since the 1970s and said human-caused global warming must be addressed now.
"We need to do something about climate change, starting yesterday," Hall said. "And it needs to be a serious effort to control greenhouse gases, which is probably the only thing we can control. If the Earth is tilting ... we can't control that but we need to look at things we can control."
The Bush administration is alone among major industrialized countries in rejecting the carbon-curbing Kyoto protocol. Washington also opposes mandatory limits on climate-warming greenhouse emissions.
Luthi, whose agency announced the Chukchi Sea oil lease sale, said there were an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil in the area and that these were needed as world demand for petroleum is rising.
Luthi said the risk to the bears from oil drilling would be negligible and that if the oil sales went through before a decision was reached on the polar bears, there would be "an additional layer of consultation" with conservation officials as oil and gas companies worked in the area.
He acknowledged his agency's environmental impact assessment said there was a 33 to 50 percent chance of a 1,000-barrel spill in this area, but also said no wildlife had been endangered by this kind of exploratory drilling.
Steven Amstrup, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told the panel that if polar bears came in contact with spilled oil, they would probably die.
"Polar bears do not do well when they get into oil," Amstrup said. "They tend to groom themselves, they ingest the oil and the spills, basically, are most likely fatal."
(Editing by Frances Kerry)