By: Timothy Gardner
Reuters, November 4, 2010
A U.S. judge on Thursday asked the Obama administration to clarify whether polar bears are endangered, a listing that ultimately could be used to force polluters to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan asked the Interior Department for more information on whether the bears, which are losing Arctic sea ice habitat due to global warming, could be considered endangered instead of merely threatened.
The move came after environmental groups challenged a 2008 decision by the administration of President George W. Bush to list the bears as threatened, a ruling the Obama administration upheld last year.
If Interior eventually decided to list them as endangered, the bears would get full protection under federal law.
U.S. oil refiners, coal-burning power plants and other polluters of greenhouse gases far away from Alaska could get sued for contributing to global warming and be forced to cut emissions to protect the bears.
Bush's Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne had ruled that polar bears were threatened, not endangered, because they faced no immediate threat of extinction.
Sullivan rejected that notion and asked Interior to "provide a reasonable interpretation of the definition of an 'endangered species,' as applied to its listing determination fro the polar bear."
Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, which challenged the listing with other groups, said Sullivan's move might lead to an endangered listing.
"It opens the door for the Obama administration to break with the flawed decision and policies of the Bush administration," she said.
Opponents of full protection for the bears have said that projections about the threat to the species have not been based on current population levels, but on expectations of melting sea ice.
The Interior Department would not comment on the case as it is still in litigation. It has until December 23 to reply to the judge.