(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Today, the Committee will conduct an oversight hearing on the Bush administration’s delay of the listing of the polar bear. This listing is months overdue, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
I also note that the Department only proposed the polar bear for listing after it was required to act under a settlement agreement which triggered the statutory obligation that a final listing decision be made by January 9, 2008.
Conducting Oversight is one of Congress’ most important duties. Oversight is especially warranted when a government agency has failed to perform its obligations under the law.
The fact that the Department of the Interior is in litigation over its failure to act is all the more reason to conduct an oversight hearing. Agencies in litigation frequently appear before oversight committees – as they should.
By failing to finalize its decision with respect to the polar bear within the statutory time limits, the Bush administration is violating the law—that is why we are here today.
One of the world’s most spectacular animals, the estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears are in danger of losing their habitat and becoming extinct over the next 50 years.
Indeed, scientists around the world are greatly concerned about the polar bear’s future, due to global warming and melting sea ice, which polar bears depend on to hunt and den.
Two months ago, this Committee heard testimony from legal and scientific experts about the consequences of melting polar sea ice on the polar bear—these pictures help demonstrate just what is at stake for the bear if we continue to ignore the problem.
And sadly, despite the peer-reviewed scientific evidence; despite the opinions of scientists in our own government; despite the fact that we have a strong, successful law to protect imperiled species—the Endangered Species Act—the Bush Administration continues to break the law by failing to make a final decision to list the polar bear.
During the January hearing, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall stated plainly that his agency had no legal excuse for the delay.
Director Hall also restated that his agency needed about an additional 30 days from January 8 to complete its work—that day passed almost two months ago.
The Bush administration does not have the right or the discretion to decide to not carry out the law.
I guess maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I always learned that when laws are passed by Congress, and signed by the President, they must be obeyed. But that’s not what’s happening here.
Let us not forget that the Endangered Species Act was designed to save species that are in danger of extinction. These species do not have an indefinite period of time to be saved.
This is why there are strict time frames for listing decisions written right into the law and the Bush administration cannot simply waive them. Again, no such legal justification has been given.
While I am deeply concerned by the Bush administration’s foot-dragging on the final listing decision for the polar bear, I am further troubled that the Administration charged full speed ahead to allow new oil and gas drilling activities in nearly 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea, where about 20% of the world’s polar bears live. That’s one in five polar bears in the world.
Had the polar bear been listed on the date the Fish and Wildlife Service was required to decide, the Minerals Management Service would have been required to formally consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
The Section 7 consultation requirements are the heart of the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, its standard is among the most successful of any wildlife law in the world.
By requiring the agencies to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to insure that an agency’s actions do not jeopardize the existence of a species or adversely change or destroy its habitat, the Act’s consultation requirement provides a critical layer of protection that other environmental reviews simply cannot match.
But the Administration went ahead and accepted bids, even though oil and gas activities may disturb polar bears making their dens, and even though an oil spill could pose big risks to the polar bear population.
Any claim by the Administration that the polar bear is not threatened or endangered by these oil and gas activities has not gone through the analysis for a threatened or endangered species required by the Endangered Species Act.
I am profoundly troubled by these events. But I suppose I should not be surprised.
Indeed, the Administration did not even begin to act on the polar bear listing process until after it was sued by conservation groups.
More important, there is a consistent pattern in the Bush administration of failure to list species under the Endangered Species Act.
As of today, it has been 693 days since the Department of the Interior has listed a single domestic species under the Act. And not a single domestic species has been listed since Mr. Kempthorne became Secretary of the Interior in May 2006.
Fewer species have been listed per year under the Bush administration than under any other president in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
Under President Clinton, an average of 65 species were listed per year; under the current President Bush only 8 have been listed per year.
Republican Presidents Reagan and the first George Bush had substantially better records than that, at an average of 32 and 58 listings per year, respectively.
Given that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as many as one-third of the world’s species are at risk of extinction if global temperatures exceed 1.5-2.5°Celsius above present day levels, we need to be redoubling our efforts to protect species from extinction—not curtailing them. And more species will be threatened if temperatures go higher.
This polar bear listing decision is now months overdue. Time is running out for the polar bear and time has run out for this decision to be made.
The Bush administration has its legal obligation to finalize its decision on the polar bear—more important, all of us have a moral obligation.
We owe it to our grandchildren who will inherit this world.
A Rabbi wrote of God’s creation in 500 AD:
"See my handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are... Be careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you."’
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