When you close your eyes and picture a polar bear, what do you see? A couple years ago, when I closed my eyes, I saw a mama polar bear with two adorable baby cubs playing in the snow. But, now when I close my eyes I have the sad imagery of a desperate polar bear, thin, shaking and clinging to a small piece of ice, stranded in the middle of a cold arctic sea.

Polar bears are the unfortunate victim of our dependence on oil. When decisions are being made, big oil wins out and polar bears are left to die. They just can’t catch a real break. Their habitat is quickly disappearing – melting ice from global warming. And, if that’s not enough, the land that is still solid is being drilled and polluted for oil exploration.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate 200,000 square miles acres of coastal land and waters along the north coast of Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears. This proposal was in response to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace.

But, just as the polar bears were about to celebrate we remembered that this week another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, approved oil-company plans for exploratory drilling in the polar bear’s habitat in the Beaufort Sea. And, the Interior is considering a similar drilling proposal in the Chukchi Sea.

How can polar bears survive when the agency with the power to protect them is schizophrenic?  The Department of Interior (DOI) declared its intent to protect polar bear habitat in the Arctic, and simultaneously sacrificed that same habitat to feed our unsustainable addiction to oil.

Having a hard time keeping up? Here are some cliff notes...

  • May 2008 the DOI listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
  • At the same time, the DOI issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gas emissions from certain provisions of the Act.
  • May 2009, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reaffirmed this Bush-era exemption for the fossil-fuels industry.
  • A court challenge to this regulation by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace is ongoing.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Interior has until June 30, 2010 to finalize critical habitat designation for the polar bear. Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species, but as long as the Secretary of the Interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.