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Group plans suit over polar bear habitat

Associated Press / January 14, 2011

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ANCHORAGE — An environmental group yesterday gave formal notice that it intends to sue the federal government for what conservationists consider a failure to protect critical habitat for polar bears from harmful oil and gas development.

The Center for Biological Diversity sent the required notice to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The Interior Department designated more than 187,000 square miles in and near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as polar bear critical habitat, said the group’s Alaska representative, attorney Rebecca Noblin.

But its agencies also have reaffirmed a George W. Bush-era plan that authorized oil leasing in the newly designated polar bear critical habitat in the Chukchi Sea, and are considering a proposal to allow Shell Oil to drill next summer in polar bear critical habitat in the Beaufort Sea.

“Unfortunately, Interior seems profoundly confused about whether to actually protect polar bear critical habitat or sacrifice it to oil companies,’’ Noblin said.

Noblin said the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that any actions they authorize do not damage or destroy critical habitat. Daily activity of the offshore oil industry — seismic testing, transit of vessels, flights to vessels, and drill sites — will do that, she said.

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