Senate Bill Would Delay Alaska Lease Sale

Chukchi Sea and Hope Basin Sale 193
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Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry introduced Senate legislation yesterday that would scuttle petroleum lease sales in federal waters off Alaska's northern coast until the Interior Department determines whether polar bears should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The bill comes as Interior's Minerals Management Service is readying a Feb. 6 lease sale in the Chukchi Sea. Another branch of the department, the Fish and Wildlife Service, is simultaneously preparing a decision on the status of the polar bear, which environmentalists say would be harmed by energy development.

FWS Director Dale Hall told a Senate panel today that his goal is to make the final decision before Feb. 6 but would not commit to completing the decision by that date. "We are pushing to try to get there," Hall said. He delayed the decision beyond a legally mandated deadline last month.

The service, in response to a petition by environmental groups, is determining whether to extend ESA protections to the polar bear due to the loss of sea ice caused by global warming.

Kerry's bill bars lease sales in the Chukchi and adjoining Beaufort Sea until there is a listing decision and, if the bear is listed as endangered or threatened, critical habitat is designated. But the bill also says lease sales could not occur until other conditions are met as well.

Interior would first have to enter into an agreement with the National Research Council to identify missing information about the area's ecosystem and animals and submit a report to Congress. The study would examine the changes that climate change will cause and provide information about the effects of oil and gas development.

The bill would also delay leasing until Interior determines that there are ready-to-use oil spill response methods that would recover at least 85 percent of a spill in the area. Interior would also have to determine that oil and gas exploration and production would not risk major harm to wildlife habitat, and that effective mitigation measures exist.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced similar legislation in the House earlier this month. MMS officials have rebuffed calls to delay the Chukchi Sea lease sale, claiming that robust environmental reviews occur before leasing and development decisions.

The Feb. 6 sale will be the first federal lease auction in the Chukchi Sea since 1991. MMS is planning to auction leases in a region covering nearly 30 million acres. The Chukchi Sea region may contain up to 15 billion barrels of oil, according to the agency.

Environmental groups this week filed a lawsuit claiming the government has not disclosed information that could show harmful effects to polar bears.

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