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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Global warming a threat to polar bears? Judge orders review of US rule

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A judge rules that the US has met its obligations for protecting polar bears, but ordered a review of a special rule that excludes greenhouse gases from the list of threats to the bears.

By Pete Spotts,  October 18, 201

A US district court judge in Washington on Monday rejected arguments from environmental groups that the US Department of Interior was failing to protect polar bears because of its refusal to consider greenhouse gases as one of the threats facing the bears.

The environmentalists had hoped that a ruling in their favor would force the government to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Most scientists agree that greenhouse-gas emissions are causing global warming, and that the rising temperatures are leading to the disappearance of Arctic Ocean ice, which is crucial to the health of polar bear populations.

Overall, the ruling highlights the challenge conservation groups can face as they turn to federal regulators to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the judge did order the Interior Department to conduct a thorough environmental review of the rule that allows it to exclude greenhouse gases from its list of threats, noting that the department had failed to do so at the time the rule was initially considered.

Environmental groups had petitioned to have polar bears listed as threatened under the ESA in 2006. But when the Bush administration listed the bears in May 2008, it also adopted a "special rule" the following December.

Under that special rule, the department stipulated that only threats emanating from within the bears' current geographic range would be considered. Since greenhouse gases affecting climate come from sources around the globe, they fell outside the regulatory purview the special rule set.

Four environmental groups joined a lawsuit, holding that the exclusion was arbitrary, capricious, and illegal under the ESA, especially since the bears' listing cited climate change as a threat to the creatures' habitat. The coalition based much of its case on what it saw as the Interior Department's attempt to dodge its responsibility to regulate all threats to the bears, including greenhouse gases.

The Interior Department argued that since the overwhelming majority of greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities originate outside the polar bears' range, and the state of climate science doesn't allow for the level of precision needed to pinpoint and penalize individual emitters, the agency was in no position to add greenhouses gases to its regulatory mix.

In rendering his decision, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan acknowledged the groups' frustration at the lack of federal action to regulate greenhouse gases.



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