ANCHORAGE — The federal government will designate "critical habitat" for polar bears off Alaska's coast, a decision that could add restrictions to future offshore petroleum exploration or drilling.
Federal law prohibits agencies from taking actions that may adversely modify critical habitat and interfere with polar bear recovery. That probably will affect oil and gas activity, said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that sued to get a critical habitat designation.
"Other than global warming, the worst thing that's going on in polar bear habitat right now is oil development and the potential for oil spills," Siegel said.
Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said it's not known what area in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska might be designated for polar bears, especially given that sea ice conditions are changing and areas now covered by ice might in the future be open water.
The agreement to designate critical habitat was filed Monday in Oakland as a partial settlement of a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Siegel's group.
They sued in March after Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne missed a January deadline for declaring polar bears threatened or endangered.
Kempthorne on May 14 declared polar bears "threatened," or likely to become endangered, citing their need for sea ice, the dramatic loss of sea ice in recent decades and computer models that suggest sea ice is likely to further recede.
The settlement sets a deadline of June 30, 2010, for a final rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear.