Thursday, December 28, 2006


US Secretary of the Interior Press Conference 27 Dec. 2006 - Polar Bear Protection





DECEMBER 27, 2006






KEMPTHORNE: Today the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

We're making this proposal because a scientific review of the species by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that populations may be threatened by receding sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform for many activities essential to their life cycle, including hunting for their main prey, Arctic seals.

Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors. They're able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments. But there's concern that their habitat may literally be melting.

I, like all Americans, support conservation of the polar bear, and will work in partnership on measures to achieve this goal.

The proposal I'm announcing today will be open for public comment for the next three months, with a final decision on whether or not to list as threatened to come in 12 months.

I'm directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to aggressively work with the public and the scientific community over the next year to broaden our understanding of what is happening with the species.

This information will be vital to the ultimate decision on whether these species should be listed.

The total number of polar bears worldwide is estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 individuals, distributed throughout most ice-covered ares of the Northern Hemisphere, in the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.

Canada's Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears in Canada has suffered a significant 22 percent decline. Alaska populations have not experienced a statistically significant decline. But Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are concerned that they may face such a decline in the future.

KEMPTHORNE: While the proposal to list the species as threatened cites the threat of receding sea ice, it does not include a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change. That analysis is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process, which focuses on information about the polar bear and its habitat conditions, including reduced sea ice.

However, climate change science and issues of causation are discussed in other analyses, undertaken by the administration. The administration treats climate change very seriously, and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change.

The service extensively analyzed the impact of both on-shore and off-shore oil and gas development on polar bear populations, and determined that development does not pose a threat to the species.

The service had its preliminary analysis of polar bear populations upon which this proposal is based peer reviewed by 12 outside experts on polar bear biology.

I recognize, also, that harvesting polar bears is of great social, cultural and economic importance to native peoples throughout much of the Arctic. Therefore, maintaining a harvest within sustainable limits remains one of my priorities.

This subsistence harvest is carefully monitored to ensure it is consistent with polar bear conservation. Even if the polar bear is listed next year -- and that decision has not been made -- the Endangered Species Act would provide for the continuation of this subsistence harvest, as long as it continues to be consistent with the long-term conservation of the species.

Polar bears are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In addition, the species is protected by international treaties involved countries in the bears' range.

KEMPTHORNE: For example, earlier this month, Congress passed the United States-Russia Polar Bear Conservation and Management Act of 2006, implementing a treaty with Russia designed to conserve polar bears shared between the two countries. And I expect President Bush to sign this legislation into law.

This treaty calls for the active involvement of native people and their organizations in Alaska and Russia in managing subsistence harvest levels.

Additionally, the treaty establishes a bilateral commission that will direct research and establish sustainable and enforceable harvest limits.

The Russians are ready to implement the treaty and the Interior Department is working with the State Department to coordinate U.S. implementation of the treaty, including appointment of commissioners once it has been presented to the president for signature and signed into law.

The proposed rule does not include a proposal for designating critical habitat. As part of the request for comments on the proposed rule, the services seeking information regarding measures to consider and reasons why any habitat should or should not be determined to be critical habitat for the polar bear if the listing becomes final.

I share the desire to conserve this species. When making our final decision on whether to list the polar bear a year from now as a threatened species, we will again consider the best available science and the efforts being made by states and other nations to protect the polar bear.

Our goal, ultimately, is to combine the best science available with the power of working hand-in-hand with states and tribes and foreign countries, industry and other partners to minimize the threats to polar bears and to conserve this great icon of the Arctic for future generations.

With that, I'm going to turn to Dale Hall for some comments before we then open this up to questions.

HALL: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I think I would like to just highlight three points that the secretary has mentioned in his discussion with you.

The first point is that we star with the facts that we know what has happened. We know that the polar cap has been reduced by an estimated 20 percent over the last 20-plus years and a rate of permanent ice loss of as much as 9.8 percent per decade.

HALL: And we know that the west Hudson Bay in Canada has experienced a bear population decline of between 20 percent and 22 percent.

And in that decline, they were -- a prelude to that was a loss in weight of some of the adults, a lack of cub survival and recruitment and a general lessening of the health of the adult bears and the young prior to them going into a population decline.

While we do not have a statistically valid population trend downward in the Southern Beaufort Sea, we do see the same sorts of physical health criteria that were witnessed in West Hudson Bay.

So, over the next 12 months, we will be looking very hard at the reliability, the probability, if you will, of the models that are out there -- how accurate are they, both in the sea ice melting and in the timeline in which it melts, because 45 years has been established as the foreseeable future for the polar bear?

That's generally three generations. The International Union of Conservationists and Naturalists recommended that, as well as other polar bear experts, and we accepted that.

We'll be evaluating the sea ice models and the polar bear population models that we have to try and determine what is the reliable and what isn't.

And then, the final point I'd like to stress is there are five factors that must be analyzed in listing a species under the Endangered Species Act, as either threatened or endangered.

Only one of those factors was found to be relevant for the polar bear. And that was the range and extent of its habitat: the polar ice.

And so oil and gas was analyzed thoroughly and found not to be a threat.

Subsistence harvest was analyzed thoroughly and found not to be a threat.

So the other activities that are going on in Alaska were not found to be a threat to the bear. This is directly tied to the sea ice loss and the ultimate dependence of the polar bear on drift ice and on its prey species and being able to hunt the seals, which are its main prey species.

So with that, Secretary, I'll turn it over.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for holding the briefing.

Recent estimates I've seen for the total polar bear population is thought to be increasing. How much of your focus is on -- I mean, is it just one population you would need to find that has trouble that could get you to a threatened listing?

KEMPTHORNE: Dale, why don't you respond to that?

HALL: The current global population of polar bears is estimated between 20,000 and 25,000. We have information on very few of the 19 populations that are out there, very little recent information.

We have pretty substantial information on the Hudson Bay population that I discussed, and the USGS has done an excellent job of looking at the Southern Beaufort Sea populations.

We have not been seeing increases in polar bear except possibly in localized areas, and there we are uncertain as to whether or not that's actually an increase in the population numbers in that area or whether or not the loss of sea ice drift has simply pushed more bears on land than we were normally used to seeing.

But we are looking at this globally, and if we can find out some connections between the sea ice retreat and polar bear reduction in population numbers in certain areas, and if the models that Steve Amstrug (ph) and others at USGS will be running on the relationship between those factors that we talked about earlier of the health of the bears and the reduced populations, we believe that that would be legitimate to be thinking about that wherever the bear occurs.

HALL: If the sea ice is retreating and they are not able to do their normal feeding on seals and be mobile on drift ice -- and they depend a lot on drift ice to conserve energy, to move around and catch their prey -- then we believe that there is a correlation there.

But we'll need to substantiate that. Right now, we really don't have a substantiation for that. But the information that we do have is a strong indicator that we should move to this next step, which is going another 12 months and doing more evaluations.

QUESTION: I'm really not totally clear on who might be to blame. Are you saying that your research found that northern industries, in the Arctic, in Alaska, is not to blame, but domestic industry in North America may be?

KEMPTHORNE: No. The analysis done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this proposed rule is stating that oil and gas development is not a factor, period; that the factor that's causing the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose this rule is that the sea ice is melting, which is the prime habitat for the polar bear.

So, again, as they looked at those five factors, one of those factors -- about oil and gas development -- is not one of those factors that is a threat to the polar bear.

KEMPTHORNE: Dale, I don't know if you want to add to that.

HALL: Yes, sir.

The polar bear spends the vast majority of its life on ice -- on the drift ice, on the sawed ice. There are maternity dens that we know of where they can come on shore, where there's snow, and build their dens. And they'll do some maternity activity there. And then they move -- tend to move back off shore back onto the ice, because their main prey is the seal. And so they spend the vast majority of their life out on the ice.

And so what we're saying about oil and gas exploration on and off shore is that we have seen no demonstrated impact from oil and gas operations on the polar bear's life history. And what we're saying is that the cause of us taking this next step is the warming of the climate to produce the sea ice that the polar bear depends so much upon.

QUESTION: So I guess the question is: Who is to blame for that; the warming of the ice?

HALL: That's not an analysis that is either required or that we have the expertise to perform under the Endangered Species Act with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.


HALL: Can I put a little tag on the end of that question? The administration has spent approximately $29 billion trying to find the answer to last question the gentleman asked, but other people and other organizations outside the Fish and Wildlife Service are dealing with that.

QUESTION: I guess my question is: What is the real world goal of this rulemaking, if the main legal reason for undertaking this rulemaking is that the polar bear's habitat is shrinking?

Well, I mean, there's nothing that can be done about that. There's no thermostat under the Arctic that can be turned down.

So, you know, obviously, the polar bear is going to be moving south. We're going to allow -- apparently harvesting will be allowed. I think this has got to be the first time in the history of endangered species where we're going to have harvesting of an endangered species.

You know, what are we trying to do here?


HALL: OK. I guess you had two or three in there.

Let me start with the harvest aspect of it. We certainly -- we do have examples where threatened species are harvested under the Endangered Species Act, where the harvest either has a benefit in helping us learn more about the movements of the species or whatever, or it causes no harm.

A threatened status allows those sorts of permissions to be given. And, you know, we have bowhead whales and sea otters, both that have the ability to be harvested, and yet they're both on the list.

And I'm sorry, I missed the first part of your question.

QUESTION: Well, is the purpose then just to protect the polar bear as it inevitably -- the populations move south into areas populated by humans and in effect to limit whatever harvesting there is.

Because nothing can be done about the polar bears' habitat. There's no one, no climate scientist will say that, you know, we can reverse what's going on in the polar region, whatever that is.

HALL: I think it's important to remember the mandates of the law here. The Endangered Species Act -- and I mentioned a while ago that there are five factors that we analyze. That fifth factor says "manmade or natural causes for the decline of the species." And any one of those factors -- loss of habitat, overharvest or overutilization, disease and predation, lack of regulatory protections in place, and then that fifth one of natural or manmade, any one of them qualifies the species to be placed on the list, whether or not we have the answers as to how to solve the problem.

QUESTION: Yes, I understand that. And my original question is so what is the real world goal here, since we can't stop the shrinking habitat, what is the real world goal?

HALL: Well, the real world goal is in two steps right now. The first step is 12 months from now, to walk through and try and understand what we know or don't know, what we can rely on, what we can't rely on, so that a decision can be made as to whether or not to place it on the list.

If it is placed on the list, and if we reach that point, then we would follow the normal process of trying to pull together all of the people that can help make this happen, from international to national to Alaskan to the native Americans, all of the scientists that we have, everyone to try to sit down and help us craft a recovery plan.

And that's where those sorts of questions would be vetted out.

But the main thing right now is to get through the first 12 months and understand the science and what we can rely on and what we can't.

QUESTION: OK, so right now, you don't have any idea whether in fact the polar bear can be saved without, you know, perhaps infringing on the rights of folks in Alaska, for example?

HALL: We're not at the point of being able to answer that question based on the analysis and the depth of them we've done so far.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. Secretary, thank you.

In your opening remarks, you pointed out very clearly that the melting sea ice was the cause of this loss of habitat.

And I think you also said, if I remember what you said correctly, that the administration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases.

In those circumstances, under the 1973 act, is the administration now obligated to act to curb the omission of greenhouse gases? And, if not, why not?

KEMPTHORNE: After the -- and this was stated earlier -- with the Endangered Species Act -- and that's the element that we're working with right now -- that whole aspect of climate change is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act.

Now, as also has been pointed out, with President Bush, with his administration -- where there's been an investment of $29 billion dealing with this issue of climate change.

So in a different venue, there will continue to be discussions, identification of the science, discussions as to what efforts can be done.

But we're actually seeing that there has been some reductions here in the United States, so we're going to continue that effort.

But that is outside the scope of this.

What we're talking about right now with the Endangered Species Act is one species, a polar bear.

And during the next 12 months, it will be an evaluation of that animal, what is happening to its habitat and what sort of mitigations could be brought forward that could be of help to that species.

QUESTION: Thanks so much.

If I may follow up, if you're saying the act obliges you to trying to protect the habitat, and you're also admitting that the administration sees a link between climate change and greenhouse gases: Why are you not, therefore, legally obliged to try and deal with those greenhouse gases?

KEMPTHORNE: Well, again, it's not part of the Endangered Species Act.

KEMPTHORNE: Dale, I don't know if you have any further on that.

HALL: Well, the president set a goal for 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by, I believe, 2012. And that's happening in other aspects under other mandates and funding sources.

Sir, to be honest with you, we don't have the expertise in the Fish and Wildlife Service to make those kinds of analyses. We're biologists by trade. And so we deal with the facts that are out on the landscape, and in this case we're dealing with the fact of reduced sea ice, and that's what we're able to analyze.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

QUESTION: Just to follow up a little bit, you're saying climate change is beyond the scope of the ESA completely.

Mr. Secretary, you said we're actually seeing there have been some reductions in the United States. Were you talking about greenhouse gases?

KEMPTHORNE: Well, efforts in this whole environmental effort. So...

QUESTION: OK. So no reductions in -- you're not talking about greenhouse gas reductions in the U.S.

I just wanted to be sure, because you weren't referring to polar bears, right?

KEMPTHORNE: Right. That's right.


One other question, on the peer reviews. Will those be made available? Can we get those online?

KEMPTHORNE: Dale, can you respond to that?

HALL: The peer review information will certainly be part of the record that we will have that will be available for review.


HALL: The peer review is on the status review itself, and then we took the status review and the peer reviews and put the rule together.

QUESTION: Just one quick one. On the five listing factors, there is -- I think you're mentioning, Director Hall, manmade?

HALL: Yes, the fifth factor is...

QUESTION: Manmade habitat modification...

HALL: ... the effect of our manmade impacts.

QUESTION: Right. Right. And, you know, just to follow up on what the guy from (inaudible) was talking about, I mean, we do cause pollution. So how can we not look at that? I mean, if there's a mountaintop mining operation that is depositing fill into a stream and endangering a mussel or some kind of species there; I mean, that's a direct impact.

But this is something where many people believe the climate is changing, the climate -- you know, that change is causing the sea ice to melt. So, I don't know -- how do you say that's beyond the scope of the ESA completely?

HALL: Well, I'm not sure that we're not twisting some questions here, but let me answer it this way.

If we have pollution going into a stream or if we have wetlands being filled or if we have various activities that our expertise allows us to analyze and make the conclusion on, then we do that.

In the case of atmospheric and climate change, we don't have that kind of expertise, so we depend on NASA, we depend on USGS, we depend on others to do those kinds of analyses for us, and then we understand what it is they're telling us and try and work with the science to understand what the reasonable prediction is as to what really will happen.

QUESTION: Is there any explanation in the proposal about "warranted, but precluded"? Did you consider that as an option? And how do you justify proposing the bear as threatened when there are other species that are already warranted, but precluded?

HALL: Well normally, as you know -- because, I've visited with you before and respect the work that you do. You know that the "warranted, but precluded" is generally used when we get a petition and we say that we don't have the staffing or the funding or there are other higher priority species ahead of this one to work.

And that is when we use the "warranted, but precluded". In this case, Alaska was able to work the petition and was able to work through the court settlement timeframe. And so it seemed to us to be a little disingenuous to say "warranted, but precluded" when we've done the work to analyze the information, at least to this stage.


MYERS: Yes, this is a little bit of clarification on the secretary's statement. I think what has occurred is an actual decrease in the rate of increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

QUESTION: You can't propose reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to help the polar bears. What real, tangible thing can you do to help the polar bears? Or will you be able to do nothing?

HALL: Do you want me to go ahead, Secretary?

KEMPTHORNE: Yes, that would be fine, Dale.


I think that that was part of what we were discussing a little while ago. We are now analyzing: Should it even warrant being placed on the endangered species list as a threatened species? If we reach that point, that question is exactly the kind of question that we would ask a recovery team to advise us on. What are those feasible, practical things that can actually be done to try and help the polar bear?

And we form these recovery teams in order to give us advice from a lot of different perspectives. And they're always very valuable.


HALL: And those perspectives are always very valuable because they are from different views, and they come up with some pretty innovative ideas sometimes in recovery plans.

So I would not want to prejudge what a recovery team that we would ask to come and advise us on how to try and address it, if we reach the point of listing at this point.

QUESTION: Is this a symbolic designation? And are there going to be attached provisions that would ensure the ice habitat is not in jeopardy?

HALL: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by symbolic, because we're following the letter of the law here and analyzing the science as we know it.

We have a court settlement. We had a petition to list the bear as threatened. Then we were delayed in getting that under way and so we reached an agreement with the plaintiffs on the court settlement date of today to have an answer at the 12-month finding stage. And that's what we're going through.

The law requires us to analyze the information that we're analyzing and to make decisions at various points along the way. And this is one of those required points.

Getting onto the endangered species list, by any species, is a step-wise progression. If we're doing it internally, we would spend time analyzing the information first, then deciding whether or not we should propose, then proposing, then getting more information from the public and from other scientists, and then moving on to whether or not we should list.

In the case of a petition, we analyze the petition to see if it has adequate information to warrant further review. And if it does, then we pick up and do that next step, which is to analyze the information and decide whether or not it should be proposed for listing.

That's what we've done here. And so, it is not a symbolic effort for us. It is our responsibility under the law.

QUESTION: And what about attached provisions? Are there going to be attached provisions that would ensure that the ice habitat is not jeopardized?

HALL: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by attached provisions. When we list a species, we place it on the list of threatened or endangered species. We identify, in the rule, what the causes are. And the only cause that we can identify now that warrants further review is the ice melting.

And then once we list a species, we move into a recovery planning process, where we get that kind of advice on what we could do that's feasible, practical. And out of that comes the measures that we work with others to try to implement.

QUESTION: One just quick follow-up, please: Are you acknowledging that the ice melting to due to global warming?

HALL: Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: So the answer is yes, you're acknowledging that?

HALL: Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you're aware of polar bear denning areas in either the National Petroleum Reserve or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

KEMPTHORNE: If you would, I'd like some of our Alaska biologists, while they're getting their information here, to try to answer it.

We do know that there are a little over 60 denning sites across the north slope. But I'll turn to Scott to answer that question.

SCHLIEBE: In answer to your question, we are aware of denning that takes place by polar bears -- within NPRA, on the northern coast of Alaska, along barrier islands, within some of the riverine and bluff habitat, as well as further to the east in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This information comes to us from satellite telemetry studies that are being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey group, and have been conducted over a series of years.

Telemetry goes back to the mid-1980s and our data base is quite strong on den-site selection and fidelity to these areas.

So I do think that we have a wealth of information on how bears are selecting some of these areas for denning.

And it's certainly going to be a very beneficial piece of the equation (ph) that we will look at.

And we've already been looking at it quite closely, actually, and working closely with operators up on the north slope, in order to mitigate, minimize or eliminate effects of human activities when they may occur in denning habitat.

So we will continue to operate in that fashion. And, you know, denning habitat is probably -- in the event of denning -- is probably one of the most important polar bear functions during their lifecycles.

It's the way that new animals are recruited into the population.

QUESTION: The administration just opened up large areas of the National Petroleum Reserve to oil and gas leasing.

QUESTION: I mean, given the uncertainty of this listing, Mr. Secretary, do you think it's important to maybe slow down on that? Or what are your views of that leasing?

KEMPTHORNE: No, my views at this time are, number one, we'll always abide by the most stringent of environmental standards, but also in this proposed rule it's very clear that the oil and gas activity in that area does not pose a threat to the polar bear. And also, in fact, they have been effective partners, the industries.

So, no, I think that we can proceed while on a parallel course during the next 12 months doing this analysis by Fish and Wildlife and by the USGS.

QUESTION: This is a question for the secretary. I have just a clarification.

So, right at this moment, a discussion of the reasons behind climate change is beyond the remit of the department, but that could change if the polar bear were listed as threatened? Or is that never going to be on the table no matter how it's classified?

KEMPTHORNE: No, that is not a factor with the Endangered Species Act.

Again, we need to just concentrate and focus on the species and its habitat, but, again, referencing that the Bush administration, throughout the administration, has made investments of $29 billion on this issue, and that will continue as the scientific community keeps working to make a determination what is occurring, how does that fit into historic realities, what is the projection for the future.

QUESTION: So if the estimation was made that it deserved to be on the list, and it was put on the list, then the department would turn to other agencies as in the Bush administration to make a determination of what was causing the habitat to change?

KEMPTHORNE: Well, again, that's -- I cannot prejudge that. I mean, that's part of what the 12 months is about.

Dale, do you want to add anything to that?

HALL: During the 12-month period, we will be going -- we've already gone to NASA and U.S. Geological Survey. We've gone to Alaska, the biologists up there. We've gone to international scientists.

I'll reiterate that the peer review of our status review on the bear, which was the foundation for writing the rule, literally had scientists from every country that has polar bears doing the peer review.

We asked for 12 people to review; 10 did. And all five countries had their scientists there.

That's a process that we will simply keep going down, in order to better understand over the next 12 months exactly what the right path is.

QUESTION: But what I guess -- just a very quick follow-up -- what I really just don't understand is how it is that the department can make a very firm determination today, before the 12 months is over, that the oil and gas industry has nothing to do with the changing habitat, but that it's beyond the remit of the department to decide what's going on with the climate change.

How is one -- how can one be such a firm conclusion and then now making any sort of conclusion on another question?

HALL: The proposal to list the species is just exactly that: It is a proposal. If you want to look at it that way, it's a draft that we would move forward with, and it contains what we know today.

And all of the 30 years of experience that we have with the oil and gas industry up on the North Slope has proven to us, so far, that the oil and gas industry has had no negative impact on polar bears. That's all we're saying in this. And it's open -- it will be out there for 90 days for the public to give us comments and give us information that maybe we don't have.

STAFF: Before we take our last question, which will be the next question, I want to recognize Lynn Scarlett, the deputy secretary of the interior, who's joined the call.

Lynn, are you with us?

SCARLETT: Yes, I am.

STAFF: You have a couple of points on some of the questions.

SCARLETT: Yes. There's been a lot of discussion in the questions about the administration's position on climate change, and I just wanted to amplify the responses that you've heard so far on that.

SCARLETT: You've heard both Dale Hall and Secretary Kempthorne indicate that the administration has expended some $29 billion on both climate research as well as technology development to address greenhouse gases.

But I want to add to that that, in addition, we have over 60 measures, ranging from mandatory measures to voluntary measures and partnerships, designed to reduce greenhouse gases and greenhouse gas intensity; that is, the level of greenhouse gases emitted in relationship to economic productivity.

And those measures include partnerships with 14 different industry sectors to help us reach our 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas intensity by 2012; as well as, for example, mandatory requirements for appliance efficiency.

Many of you are familiar with the light truck fuel emission standards that were promulgated and a variety of other measures along those lines.

So I want to underscore that while this particular proposal to list is focused on the ESA, there are many other measures being undertaken on climate change.

QUESTION: Oil and gas development is not a relevant factor; that's been said earlier. I just wanted to know: If the polar bear is listed as threatened, how will oil and gas development be affected?

HALL: This is Dale Hall. If it is listed as threatened, then the oil and gas industry would have to -- whoever's permitting it, from the federal government standpoint, would have to enter into a Section 7, government to government, under the law -- Section 7 consultation, which they already do for the (inaudible) wherever a species is listed.

This would be another factor that they would consider in environmental impact statements, in describing the potential impacts of the action, and then a Section 7 consultation that we would give them dealing with that.

That, primarily, would be the impact to oil and gas that would occur.

QUESTION: OK. Has the (inaudible) or any other animal that's listed as endangered actually halted any kind of project or slowed down any kind of oil and gas development project in Alaska?

HALL: Well, you know, I'm not with the National Marine Fishery Service, but I understand that whales have been an issue, at least to be considered in the past -- offshore. But that's the only one that I can recall.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you very much, everyone.

Before I close, I just wanted to reiterate that has the press release announcing this proposed listing, as threatened, of the polar bear, and other materials, including photos and downloadable video.


[????] - Indicates Speaker Unknown
[--] - Indicates could not make out what was being said.[off mike] - Indicates could not make out what was being said.

LOAD-DATE: December 27, 2006

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Illegal Power Plants, Coal Mines In China Pose Challenge for Beijing

Wall Street Journal

Illegal Power Plants, Coal Mines In China Pose Challenge for Beijing

December 27, 2006; Page A1

JUBAO VILLAGE, China -- On the edge of this dusty farming hamlet, the massive smokestack of the half-finished Xinfeng Power Plant looms as a monument to China's out-of-control demand for energy.

Unlike two other power plants nearby, Xinfeng isn't supposed to exist. China's electricity regulators never authorized the $362 million coal-burning plant. But in 2004, the provincial government here in northern China's Inner Mongolia ignored Beijing's call to slow down investment and started building the plant anyway, hoping to ensure enough juice for the region's supercharged industrialization by tapping its rich reservoirs of coal.


Inner Mongolia's disobedience might have escaped notice. But in July 2005, in the rush to finish the plant before regulators found out about it, the housing for a turbine collapsed, killing six workers. During the yearlong investigation that followed, the central government discovered that Inner Mongolia had illegally built about 10 power plants, or 8.6 gigawatts of electricity-generating capacity -- equal to about a 10th of the United Kingdom's total capacity.

The illegal plants have had unintended -- and detrimental -- consequences. By eschewing even basic environmental safeguards, they stand out as polluters even in an industry that is one of China's leading sources of emissions, officials say. They also have driven up the demand for and price of coal, the country's most abundant source of fuel. That, in turn, has spawned thousands of illegal coal mines that have contributed to more than 4,000 coal-mining deaths in China this year.

The illegal power plants show how China's economic transformation is outpacing Beijing's ability to manage it. Never before has a country with such a big population grown as rapidly as China. The country's economy has expanded an average 10% a year since the late 1970s. The process of economic modernization is happening twice as fast in China as it did in the U.S. or Japan, where it took half a century or more.

One fifth of the power plants in China are illegal, according to government estimates -- enough to light up all of the U.K. While the electricity they supply is essential to power China's growth, the uncontrolled manner in which they are multiplying, often under the protection of local authorities, poses a challenge to Beijing's authority and its grip on energy policy.

"It is impossible for our central government to go everywhere to see, when the small power plants start building," said Zhang Guobao, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top energy policy planner, in an interview.

The central government is likewise finding it hard to crack down on illegal coal mines. In past years it has shut down thousands of mines -- only to see thousands more spring up in their place. The primary reason: the soaring profits to be made from selling coal to China's power plants are a powerful temptation. Many regions have embraced coal mining to boost their growth rates, including Inner Mongolia, one of China's most coal-rich provinces.

Infuriated by the illegal Xinfeng power plant, central-government officials earlier this year demanded that the province's top leadership present self-criticisms before China's powerful State Council, or cabinet. Under China's Communist system, that's an unusually public form of rebuke, designed to send a message to others against defying Beijing's will.

Even so, construction continues today at the Xinfeng plant nearly a year after Beijing ordered it stopped. Officials at the company building the plant say they expect to get approval to complete it "sooner or later."

In China, more power plants almost invariably mean more coal consumption. The country has been unable to diversify away from coal, which is cheaper than alternative fuels, some of which are imported.

But China's coal consumption is costly in human and environmental terms. Amid the push to feed the country's power plants last year, 5,938 coal miners were killed in accidents, mostly in smaller, illegal mines. Such accidents are so commonplace here that only the larger ones rank as news.

Coal is one of the biggest pollution sources in China, which some experts think is on the verge of an environmental crisis. This year, the central government set a target of reducing the amount of energy the country consumes relative to its economic output. But the soaring demand for coal-fueled electricity has upended Beijing's efforts to rein in pollution.

"It will be very difficult to realize our targets of saving energy and reducing pollution," Ma Kai, China's top economic policy planner, said this fall.

The implications of China's mushrooming hunger for energy go far beyond its own borders. As incomes rise in China, energy use per person is starting to catch up with the richer West. The typical American consumes about eight metric tons of oil a year, or its equivalent in coal and other fuels. Japanese consume about half that sum. In China, per capita energy consumption now stands at just 1.2 metric tons.

It would require a doubling of world oil production -- an impossible feat -- for every Chinese to live the energy-intensive lifestyle of an American, as well as more coal than some believe China could ever dig up.

"We can't copy the big home and the big car" that so many Americans enjoy, said Zhou Dadi, a top researcher with the Energy Research Institute, a government-backed think tank. "It's just not doable."


China's current energy predicament is rooted in the decision it made three decades ago when it began to embrace a market economy. For the first 20 years of its transition, as China shifted from a mostly agrarian country to light industry, it was able to quadruple the size of its economy while only doubling its energy needs.

Throughout the 1990s, however, a new and faster phase of expansion quietly took hold as the government loosened restrictions on investment and the mobility of its citizens, accelerating China's industrialization and urbanization. Manufacturing accounted for a steadily greater share of the economy. Energy-intensive heavy industries boomed, from petrochemicals to auto production, aided by China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Low energy prices, made possible in part by government controls, encouraged consumers to use more. Coal consumption initially crept up slowly, to around 1.5 billion metric tons a year in the mid-1990s, from just under one billion metric tons a year a decade earlier. Last year, however, China consumed about 2.2 billion metric tons of coal, one-third of the world's total and more than any other country.

Beijing's efforts to reduce reliance on coal have largely failed. China has plenty of coal -- an estimated 114.5 billion metric tons of recoverable reserves. Only the U.S. and Russia have more. Natural gas, which burns more efficiently and causes far less pollution, has proved too expensive to compete effectively. Planned increases in nuclear-power production would fill only a fraction of China's energy demand. Even China's more-ambitious plans for hydropower power and wind farms won't seriously challenge coal's dominance.

Coal miners are on the front lines of the battle to meet China's energy needs. It is dangerous work. As with power plants, China's government has had great difficulty regulating coal mines. In the U.S., which produces about half as much coal as China, 47 miners have been killed so far this year, up from 22 last year. In China, the number of deaths has declined slightly this year, but it is still enormous: 4,236 dead so far.

The number of casualties goes up in the winter. More than 400 miners died in November alone. "In winter, demand goes up, the market prices go up, and the profit motive goes up," said Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Worker Safety, the agency that investigates mine accidents.

Smaller, often inefficient, and dangerous mines account for about a third of China's coal production. They are so important to meeting its energy needs that the central government recently delayed plans to improve safety by shuttering many of them.

Whole regions of China are pockmarked with tiny, illegal mines like the one in Wangyu in central China's gritty Shanxi province, where an accident in early November killed 34 miners. Four tons of demolition explosives illegally stored in a shaft caught fire and destroyed the small mine, according to government safety officials. The dead, who had just started the night shift, were mostly from the same village some 250 miles away.

Wang Chenliang, from Sichuan province, had just ended his shift when the explosion occurred. He rushed back to help with rescue efforts. He and others pulled survivors from the wreckage and pumped air into the mine to aid anyone who was trapped but still alive.

"This work is tiring and dangerous," Mr. Wang said a few days after the accident, only moments before police detained a journalist attempting to interview survivors. Like others, he got his job through introductions from fellow villagers. "We came here to earn money. The money here is much higher than back home in Sichuan."

The mine's safety certificate and production permit had both expired, according to central-government officials. But the local government was protecting it, they said, because it held a financial interest in the mine.

That sort of corruption is common. Last year, the central government found that more than 4,500 government officials illegally held stakes in coal mines and frequently covered up safety violations. Many of these mines lack basic safety equipment. Workers scrabble down narrow pits, where the most modern tools may be the sticks of dynamite used to dislodge the coal. At the accident site in Wangyu, there was no rescue equipment on hand, another common problem.

Over the past few years, provincial officials in Inner Mongolia have decided to build power plants and encourage heavy industry to relocate to the region to take advantage of its coal resources. The strategy has paid off in economic terms.

Last year, the province's economy grew 21.6%, roughly double the national rate. In 2004, it grew 19.4%. Industrial output has grown an average 30% a year over the past four years. Such unbridled growth caught China's central government off guard.

In 2003 and 2004, massive power shortages in the south led to rolling blackouts. Local authorities across China decided to build power plants, often illegally, to keep their local economies humming. Around that time, officials in Inner Mongolia approved a plan to build the Xinfeng Power Plant in the small town of Fengzhen, in a bid to attract more factories.

"Inner Mongolia has a lot of coal. Other parts of China need the electricity. Of course Inner Mongolia should take advantage of its natural resources," said Yan Keji, a construction worker at one of the three power plants near Jubao.

It isn't just heavy industry that needs power. China's consumers are using more, too. Mr. Yan's hometown in the mountains of Hunan didn't have electricity until 1990. At first, his house had one light bulb. Now, the money he earns from construction has paid for a television, washing machine, refrigerator and air conditioning, a pattern repeated in millions of homes across China as people get richer.

China's sprawling cities are also driving up power demand. Inner Mongolia now provides Beijing with 20% of its electricity, according to Jim Brock, an independent energy consultant in the Chinese capital.

Nearly two years ago, China's central government started cracking down on the unauthorized power plants because they feared a surplus of power. In Inner Mongolia, local officials ignored orders to stop building the Xingfeng plant, figuring they could always get retroactive approval, according to the official Xinhua news agency. But the death of the six workers in July 2005 set in motion the investigation that culminated in the public castigation of the provincial chief and the order to stop work on Xinfeng.

Some construction work on the plant continues. Workers interviewed at the site said the plant would be able to produce electricity next year. They declined to give their names.

Na Guiting, an official at Inner Mongolia Energy Generation Investment Co. Ltd., the plant's owner, said the company is eager to finish building and has reapplied for approval. "Mongolia still has a very serious power shortage. If Xinfeng would be approved, it could be generating in three or four months," the official said.

--Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

Write to Shai Oster at

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