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Hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming - On Thin Ice: The Future of the Polar Bear


Location: Washington, DC


REP. JAY INSLEE (D-WA): Well, this we know: This is the last chance for the polar bear. They will never get another chance and neither will we.

And I was thinking about why people feel so strongly about this issue, and I was thinking about a woman named Helen Thayer, who was the first woman ever to ski alone to the North Pole. She was stalked for two days by a polar bear. She could have been an hors d'oeuvre for a polar bear. And I was thinking, why do we have such admiration, respect and love for this species when they at times can make us a snack?

And I think there's an obvious and an unobvious reason for that. The obvious reason is because they're so beautiful and magnificent. Their ability to turn ultraviolet light into thermal energy -- they're just beautiful.

But I think there's a deeper reason that Americans feel so passionately about that, and that is that they realize that the polar bear is the largest canary in the largest coal mine in the world, and that it is not just the polar bear at risk from this threat of global warming but we are at risk of the threat of global warming.

And when people think -- and I think the reason they care so much about this is they recognize that you don't cry for the bell tolling over the bear; we can ask why is the bell tolling for us, because that's what's happening here. And people recognize that, that a polar bear without an ice cap is a fisherman without a boat, and that's tough on the polar bear.

But a world without an ice cap is a world without a thermo regulator.

If you can just hold up this poster here, this shows the sea ice in 2000, the ice cap in the summer, and at the latest, when it'll disappear and be gone in 2040.

And the reason people care so much about the polar bear is they realize its demise is inextricably related with ours, because this is a thermo regulator for the world's climate. And when we lose that ice cap, we lose a cap that radiates energy back into the Earth, and now the ocean starts to absorb six times more energy than the world did in its northern climes, which puts us at risk, not just the polar bear.

So I am disturbed that this administration continues on a path of willful ignorance and habitual arrogance.

It is willfully ignorant to go forward with allowing leasing in this area immediately adjacent to the habitat, willfully ignoring science, willfully refusing to ask these questions before these decisions are made, and habitually being arrogant that oil surpasses all other forms of human value.

So I hope that this hearing will convince the administration to re-think its position on this, ask the hard questions, get the scientific answers before we take this leap.

And just on one parting note, and this is kind of how I feel about this, if you look over at these kids sitting over here -- I don't know where they're from; all I know about them is that they're beautiful and they look smart as a tack -- and what we're doing here today is basically saying when they're our age they'll have polar bears around, and they should have an ice cap to make sure that their planet doesn't warm up. So these kids, I hope you enjoy it today, and I hope this administration is thinking about you when they make these decisions.

Thank you. (Applause.)


REP. INSLEE: Thank you. I just want to comment on some of the things said in opening statement about the problem that we face, people suggesting that there's no clear science about what's happening in the Arctic, and it's unbelievable to me people are still adopting the attitude of the ostrich in this situation. One million square miles of the Arctic disappeared this summer. That's the size of six Californias -- disappeared, stunning the scientific community. Probably about 40 percent of the depth of the Arctic has been -- gone AWOL in the last couple of decades, and people who refuse to ignore this plain visual evidence -- I don't know how we're going to solve our problems as a country if they refuse to recognize this visual evidence. It's not hypothetical; it's not theoretical. It's gone. I just want to make that comment.

I want to ask Mr. Luthi about the risk of oil spills with polar bears. Some people suggest it's essentially no risk, but I'm reading from the environmental impact statement of May 2007 and it says: "We estimate the chance of a large spill greater than or equal to 1,000 bbl occurring and entering offshore waters is within a range of 33 to 51 percent. For purposes of analysis, we model one large spill of either 1,500 bbl platform spill or 4,600 bbl pipeline spill. If a large spill were to occur the analysis identifies potentially significant impacts to bowhead whales, polar bears, essential fish habitat, marine and coastal birds, subsistence -- (inaudible) -- and archeological sites."

Is that the conclusion of the environmental impact statement?

MR. LUTHI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Representative Inslee. I believe you may be reading from our environmental impact statement; is that correct?


MR. LUTHI: An environmental impact statement, as you are well aware, is -- asked us to basically evaluate all kinds of impacts. I don't think we would be doing our job effectively if we didn't realize and say that we're going to look at the possibility of a spill whenever there is development.

The history shows us differently. Reality is, particularly in the Alaska area, industry has been very careful, and we require that they be responsible for also having cleanup equipment available. But we do have to -- we do want to say that there is the potential to spill. To say otherwise would be --

REP. INSLEE: I appreciate that, and that's why we'd like to have the science before you make this decision. If I told you there is a 33 to 51 percent chance of you getting run over by a bus in the next year, I think you would think that was significant and you would want to know that before you made decisions. You have concluded there is a 33 to 51 percent chance of a spill, which in your own words, and I'll quote from your own agency's final environmental impact statement says, and I quote, "Our overall finding is that due to the magnitude of potential mortality as a result of a large oil spill, the proposed action would likely result in significant impacts to polar bears if a large spill occurred," close quote.

Despite that own finding of your own agency, nonetheless, you have decided, unless something changes, to go ahead with the lease of these extreme number of acres despite the fact there's that substantial risk, knowing that the other part of the agency is about to enter or could enter an endangered or threatened species declaration. Is that accurate?

MR. LUTHI: Mr. Chairman, Representative Inslee, you have quoted the EIS certainly accurately, and I would point out to you the word "if" a large spill occurred. The purpose of an impact statement is to evaluate those potentials. We then left with the agency some discretion of how to overcome and mitigate that potential impact, which we have.

Now, in addition, you've mentioned the second part of your statement deals with, you know, before the Endangered Species Act kicks in or if it does. Frankly, we -- as I've said in my opening statement, we have worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service very carefully about consultation not only with the polar bear but also all marine mammals. We believe that adequate protections exist should the Fish and Wildlife Service list the --

REP. INSLEE: I understand you believe that, but I'll tell you what, my constituents do not believe that. We think -- my constituents believe, the 650,000 I believe, that you are acting in willful ignorance of known science by making this decision before the taxpayer money is used adequately to evaluate this science. And when your own agency recognizes this threat, it is I believe negligent in the extreme to make this decision without having the declaration made by the other agency.

One other question: I sensed from your testimony, reading your testimony and what the agency has said that it treats a declaration of endangered or threatened species as sort of a nullity. It's kind of no big deal. We'd kind of do the same thing whether or not there's a designation. And I find that totally disrespectful of the law and I can't understand how you take that position. Tell us what would be different about your leasing decision if there'd been a designation before your leasing decision.

MR. LUTHI: If I understood your question correctly, it would be what would change if the polar bear had been listed as we went through the sale process; is that correct?


MR. LUTHI: What would be different would be one more layer of consultation and it would be official consultation under the Endangered Species Act. However -- and let me underline "however" -- what I believe you're not pointing out particularly is the protections under the current act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in many senses is actually more strict. What the consultation would result in is, well, we don't know what it would result in, what the purpose would be is to make sure that any activities that we authorize do not jeopardize the existence of the whatever creature or critter as happens to be listed.


REP. INSLEE: The more I listen to this, the more I understand that this is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing before they act that could result in a suicide squeeze play for the polar bear, and this is a big deal.

I come from the Seattle area where Dr. Cecilia Bitz is, who's predicted the demise of the ice cap; where George Divoshy (ph) is, who's been studying the Arctic for 25 years now and is starting for the first time to see starved polar bears wash up on the beaches that he's been studying for 25 years, where he's seen very significant changes in migratory bird habits. So it's a big deal in the country I come from.

And I want to focus on the fact that this left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing is very important. It's clear, isn't it, Mr. Luthi, that if you do this leasing and then there's a designation of a status by the agency, it'll be too late for you to do what the agency may want you to do; isn't that right?

MR. LUTHI: Mr. Chairman, Representative Inslee, taking some liberty with what you mean, should we go ahead with the leasing sale and offer the leases for sale and some are purchased, then the decision is made by the department on the status of the bear. We've lost something is what I believe you're indicating, correct?

REP. INSLEE: Yeah, we've lost the ability to do what the federal government is charged by the taxpayers to do, which is to protect the polar bear. Now if they make the designation before this, they might compel you to reduce the sale by 10 percent, for instance, and you could reduce the sale by 10 percent geographically. But after you issue these releases and then there's a designation and then the agency says wait, we've got to reduce this by 10 percent to have an acceptable risk for the bear, then isn't it true that it's too late for you to go back and terminate the leases?

MR. LUTHI: Mr. Chairman, Congressman Inslee, I disagree, one, that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

REP. INSLEE: I'm not asking you about -- you don't like my metaphor.

MR. LUTHI: And we will --

REP. INSLEE: Excuse me. I want you to answer my question. You may not like my metaphors, but I want an answer to my question. If they designate the bear and you have already issued the leases, you cannot terminate the leases legally, can you?

MR. LUTHI: We cannot terminate the leases, but --

REP. INSLEE: Thank you.

MR. LUTHI: -- we are able to consult on the next stage, which is the actual -- (inaudible) --

REP. INSLEE: I want to make absolutely clear so that you understand if you go forward on the course you are at, and you issue these releases, and then the federal agency that's vested with the legal authority to protect the bears says that those leases will endanger the bear at an unacceptable level to the taxpayer, you will have lost the ability to stop that activity. Isn't that correct? Yes or no? I think that's a yes or no answer.

MR. LUTHI: I will not answer yes or no because it's an incomplete answer.

REP. INSLEE: Well, you'll have certainly lost the ability to prevent drilling in certain areas, isn't that correct?

MR. LUTHI: We have not lost the ability to protect the bear under the Marine Mammal Protection Act at this time.

REP. INSLEE: Well, you know -- I know you don't like the answer to this question, but I think you answered it. Once you issue the leases, it's too late to go back and terminate them. You will not have the ability to take back the leases that the other federal agency have told you would have been unduly dangerous to the bear. Isn't that correct?

MR. LUTHI: Correct.

REP. INSLEE: Thank you.

MR. LUTHI: We have the ability to condition those leases, however, to protect the bear under the Endangered Species Act.

REP. INSLEE: Thank you. I think you've answered my question. Now the other thing that was a little soft soap in this 33 to 51 percent chance. I want to make sure I understand this. I want to read you the paragraph on Page E7 -- excuse me -- ES4 of your document.

"Over the life of the hypothetical development and production that could follow from the lease sale, other effects are possible from events such as a large accidental oil spill or natural gas release. We estimate the chance of a large spill greater than or equal to 1,000 bbl occurring and entering offshore waters is within a range of 33-51 percent." That's a direct quote.

Now, I've heard some suggest, well, no, that's really not considering all the whiz-bang technology we have. But I can't believe that an agency of the federal government would issue this document and say there's a 33 to 51 percent chance of a mortal oil spill, not taking into consideration existing technology, not taking into consideration existing geological information, not taking into consideration existing information on the bear.


REP. INSLEE: I thank you.

Before I forget, I enter into the record the environmental impact statement that I was referring to in my previous questions.

This planned sequence of events to allow this leasing before this designation just makes me hearken back. I'm real glad that we didn't allow DDT before we had the designation of the bald eagle. I saw four of them sitting on pilings outside where I live the other day, and I think it would be a similar type of tragedy, so I appreciate your work being here.

REP. INSLEE: I want to ask you about hunting issues.

Hunting of polar bears now is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but it's allowed for people to go out and hunt in Canada and bring them back as trophies. And I'm told there's some significant decline going on in the Hudson Bay polar bear population.

If there is a designation, how would it affect that loophole? Could the agency close that loophole or would it require statutory action?

MS. SIEGEL: Thank you, Congressman Inslee.

When a species is listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, it is automatically designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And under normal circumstances, species that are designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act are not eligible for the approval of sport-hunted trophies from Canada.

So it is possible that if the polar bear is listed under the Endangered Species Act that importation of sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada will no longer be possible.

I would note, however, that Director Hall, at the press conference last week when he announced the delay on the listing decision, did also note that it might be possible to apply for an exemption from this process from the Marine Mammal Commission.

REP. INSLEE: And what is the science to date about the decline of the Hudson species, whether it's related to global warming or hunting or both or other reasons? Could you give us any insight on that?

MS. SIEGEL: Scientists have attributed the decline of the western Hudson Bay population to global warming and also to the harvest of approximately 40 bears each year from that population, which at some point during the decline of the species ceased to be sustainable.


Going back to this listing decision, how it affects the leasing, you know, we've talked a lot about the danger of oil spills and the 33 to 51 percent likelihood of a spill and the potential mortality.

But there's another huge sort of elephant in the room, if you will, and that's the CO2 associated with burning the oil that we drill. And that's really the ultimate, you know, potential mortality of the species, of CO2 coming out of the oil we burn and we drill, going in the atmosphere, heating the atmosphere, melting the ice cap -- and by the way, somebody said it's only a 20 percent reduction. That's way, way off.


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