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Obama decision on polar bear status closely watched

December 22, 2010 |  1:12 pm

A long-simmering dispute about government protection of the polar bear has drawn in leading environmental law groups and the country’s most powerful business organizations.

Both sides are concerned about the effect that a decision on the bear's status might have on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

The Interior Department faces a legal deadline Thursday to explain why it has so far declined to upgrade the protected status of polar bears to "endangered" from its current status of "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Environmental groups normally friendly to the Obama administration have sued Interior to list the bear as endangered, saying the sea ice the bears need for hunting and breeding is being rapidly depleted by warming temperatures.

If the Obama administration listed the polar bear as endangered, it would have to move against factors that endanger it -- large emitters of greenhouse gases. That possibility worries industries dependent on fossil fuels, such as major manufacturers and utilities.

“There is a pronounced push-back from industry because they rightly see that they will have to modify or mitigate their activities to comply with the laws,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Land and Wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups suing to change the polar bear’s status to endangered.

So far, the administration has moved steadily to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But with a tough campaign ahead and a still-wobbly economy, the White House has been trying not to provoke policy battles with business, which could paint environmental regulation as a job killer.

Industry leaders said they would be watching the polar bear decision closely as a signal of the administration’s commitment to compromise with them.

A change from threatened to endangered status “would have profound consequences,” said Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor for the American Petroleum Institute, a lead litigant on the industry side. “It would very much get our attention.”

--Neela Banerjee, from Washington

Photo: A polar bear sow rests with her cubs on the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service