roomYou know, if you set aside the massive threats to their habitats posed by global warming and oil and gas development, polar bears are an “otherwise healthy” species.

That was the argument made Wednesday by William Horn, an attorney and former Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish and Wildlife in the Reagan administration, at a Capitol Hill hearing about the ongoing delay in whether to cover the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. Horn’s case was echoed by several Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

To listen to Horn, the 33-51 percent chance that the recently signed oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea on Alaska’s northwest coast would result in a major offshore oil spill is no big deal. And Horn clung to outdated projections that widespread Arctic Sea ice loss is 45 to 50 years away when, just four months ago, a NASA scientist predicted the Arctic Sea could be ice-free in the summer as soon as 2012.

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We all know the threats to polar bears posed by rapid climate change. But what would happen in the case of a major oil spill?

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“The studies that have been done on the exposure of polar bears to oil have shown that it is basically fatal, not only because of hypothermia, but also because of the ingestion of some of the oil, the hydrocarbons, as they’re trying to clean their fur.”

“If a polar bear is soiled by an oil spill, it’s not gonna be a polar bear much longer,” [National Wildlife Federation senior scientist Doug] Inkley said.

As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed out, that gets to the heart of why the Bush administration has delayed listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act for so long. Clearly, oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea would pose a threat to polar bears at a time when climate change already has them on thin ice. By putting off the legal protections of the ESA for the polar bear, said Sen. Whitehouse, the administration can lock in oil and gas leases now, guaranteeing that energy companies will either get to reap the rewards of drilling or receive lucrative buyout payments if a legal ruling or future administration revokes the leases.

Horn also advanced an unusual line of attack on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s ability to protect not just the polar bear but any species threatened by global warming. If polar bears are protected under the ESA and one of the reasons for endangerment is human-caused climate change, Horn argued, then the FWS would have an obligation to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. And FWS wouldn’t be equipped to do that.

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But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) didn’t let Horn’s hypothetical stop there. OK, you don’t want FWS to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. I agree with you, she said — that’s why I’m supporting the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, so we can take it out of FWS hands and put in the proper regulatory framework.

You’re never going to believe this, but Horn didn’t like that idea any more than he liked protecting the polar bear.

While Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne controversially declined Sen. Boxer’s invitation to appear at the hearing to explain the delay in the decision, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said he’d spoken with Kempthorne this week. Calling it “America’s panda bear,” Warner told the committee that Kempthorne expects a decision on the polar bear “before early summer.” The polar bear will have to keep treading water until then.