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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. JOHN LARSON (D-CT): Thank you, Chairman Markey.

Let me put my plug in immediately for the New England Patriots, and I do think we'll be wearing the silver and blue and celebrating.

But let me associate myself with the remarks of my colleagues here, and specifically I'm so pleased to see, as well, that we have so many young people in the audience today because, as Mr. Inslee has said, this is about you. It's about our planet.

I think of Teddy Roosevelt, that great, robust president who cared deeply about this country, its environment; I think of the bald eagle as our national symbol that almost was extinct, and today we have discussion over the issue of polar bears, who symbolically represent so much of the last vestige of the wild world in the north.

And so I think it's important that kids are here today because they not only get to hear the science and the facts, but they get to see their democracy in action, and they are stewards of the democracy of the future. And so you get to weigh the discussions and the arguments and the data and information that you hear from our experts, and then ultimately you get to decide as well. That's how our democracy works. It's interesting to see, I'm sure, for you, that there are differences of opinion when it comes to preserving our environment and making sure that we give the appropriate status to endangered species like the polar bear.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.


REP. LARSON: And yet Mr. Inslee in his questioning says that by your own statement, you recognize that should a catastrophe occur, there is a risk here of 33 to 50 percent, which we said -- you both said earlier this would be -- have negligible impact.

Doesn't that make sense to follow what Mr. Markey has laid out so that we can -- or is it because you don't want to encounter the consultation that you'll have to go through that surrounds making the polar bear an endangered species? What's the big deal here? I don't understand why -- what's behind this? Why wouldn't you proceed in the order that Mr. Markey has suggested?

MR. HALL: We will proceed, and quite frankly, if I hadn't made the decision that I made to give us more time it would have worked that way anyway. And I apologize for doing that, but I just felt like we had to to give our staff the opportunity. But quite frankly, you know, I'm a biologist that happens to be sitting in a position that is political and has that ramification, and I'm never quite comfortable in telling anybody what kind of laws they should pass.

REP. LARSON: Well, listen, I thank the both of you for your public service and these are difficult decisions, but they're very important decisions for the country and in this case for not only the polar bear but, as you have acknowledged in your own comments, other mammal life as well.

Dr. Amstrup, could you answer the question: Given the record-low summer sea ice this year, what are you doing to understand the impact on polar bears, and what could you tell us about the future impact of global warming and this melting with regard to that?

MR. AMSTRUP: Well, let me try and answer the second question first. The work that we've done has suggested that the changes in the sea ice that are projected to occur and have already been observed to occur are having a negative impact on polar bears across different reaches of their range and we expect that those negative impacts will continue.

What we're planning to do about them is in terms of understanding what our projections -- how accurate our projections are and whether or not we need to adjust our projections in the future as we do plan to continue the monitoring that we've been doing for years. We are trying to get work done in the Chukchi Sea, which we don't have much recent research ongoing in the -- or haven't recent research ongoing Chukchi Sea. We do plan to continue the research in the Beaufort Sea where we've got a long-term data set, and we're hopeful that that will continue to refine our understanding of the impact.

REP. LARSON: What would a spill in the, as they've indicated with the -- in their own assessment here -- what would that mean with respect to the polar bear?

MR. AMSTRUP: We don't really have any data that would address what the effects of a spill of that size might be in that environment. We did do an analysis of an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea on an offshore proposal that was made some years ago, and what our research showed there is that spills that escape the shoreline, that is when the oil moved offshore, there was a substantial risk of a large number of bears encountering the oil. In the Chukchi Sea, the situation is very different than it was in the Beaufort Sea and it would require additional work like that to get quantitative information on what those risks might be.

With regard to the risks of polar bears if they encounter oil, the data that are available are few but pretty clear: the polar bears do not do well when they get into oil. They tend to groom themselves, they ingest the oil and the spills tend to have a -- the basically they most likely are fatal.

REP. LARSON: And Mr. Luthi, would you -- and the question I asked Mr. Hall before just as a quick follow-up -- do you think that Mr. Markey's proposal is a common-sense, pragmatic course that we should take? What's the big deal here?

MR. LUTHI: Mr. Chairman, Representative Larson, appreciate the question. Again, I haven't seen the proposal. I would have to read it in detail. However, as I would say again, we wouldn't be proceeding with this sale if we weren't comfortable that we had enough knowledge, enough data to say that we can adequately see that the polar bear is protected as well as other endangered species if, and let me underline "if," if the department makes a decision to list the polar bear.

We take it -- I'm very serious about seeing that we do this right and I believe we are doing it right. It's an interesting -- we talk a lot about data and science and the information that's out there, and one of the reasons the data that has been collected so far is in anticipation of sale. That's one of the reasons that we actually start spending money to try and get more and more data about the Chukchi Sea about natural resources. So it's actually a help and to some degree -- with our scientific knowledge.


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