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Interior Secretary Salazar won't overturn Bush policy on greenhouse gases and polar bears

May 8, 2009 |  5:15 pm

Greenpeace activists demonstrate outside the Department of the Interior. Although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has overturned several Bush administration-era environmental policies, he announced Friday that one of them will stand. 

While Salazar conceded that the "single greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic Sea ice due to climate change," the environment czar let stand the Bush administration's decision that the Endangered Species Act cannot be used as justification for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Polar bears are listed as threatened. But despite the evidence that greenhouse gas emissions have a direct and negative effect on the species, the Endangered Species Act "is not the appropriate tool for us to deal with what is a global issue," Salazar said. 

The decision, naturally, delighted such groups as the American Petroleum Institute.  API president Jack Gerard said in a statement that his organization "[welcomes] the administration’s decision because we, like Secretary Ken Salazar, recognize that the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation’s carbon emissions."  He said a comprehensive strategy was needed to address the greenhouse gas issue, adding rather oddly that today's decision "serves to protect the polar bear" as well as the petroleum industry.

Environmental groups announced their intention to sue in an effort to overturn the decision. 

Greenpeace activists demonstrate outside the Department of the Interior."Secretary Salazar's failure to rescind this regulation only serves to cement the Bush administration's legacy of ignoring global warming science, thus putting the polar bear at further risk of extinction," Melanie Duchin of Greenpeace USA said of the announcement. 

Her group demonstrated outside the Department of the Interior, armed with a petition (and activists dressed as polar bears).  The decision, she said, "seems to reflect an emerging willingness by the Obama administration to ignore clear scientific imperatives on global warming in the face of industry pressure."

Our colleague Jim Tankersley reports on the back story that led to Friday's decision:

Bush's Interior Department listed the polar bear as threatened last year. But shortly before Bush left office, the agency issued a rule prohibiting the government from using those protections to crack down on greenhouse gas emitters, such as power plants or factories, closing what Bush officials called a "back door" to climate regulation.

Salazar pledged to reconsider the rule, along with several other so-called midnight regulations issued by the Bush administration, when he took office in January. Congress gave him authority -- and a May 10 deadline -- to rescind the rule. 

Salazar said Congress never intended for the species act to regulate climate change. Asked how that was different from the Clean Air Act, which Obama critics say was never intended to address climate change either, Salazar sidestepped the question.

The secretary also said revoking the Bush rule would leave "uncertainty and confusion" in the department's efforts to protect polar bears. He and other Interior officials, echoing the Bush administration's argument, also said it would be impossible for the government to determine causality between sources of greenhouse gases -- a cement plant in Georgia, for example -- and melting Arctic ice.

--Lindsay Barnett

Photos: Greenpeace activists demonstrate outside the Department of the Interior.  Credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

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