Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink

Polar Bear

Polar bearPolar Bear

Scientific Name: Ursus maritimus

Range: Northern polar region

Conservation Status: Global population listed as threatened.

Remaining Population: Scientists estimate that there are 3,500 in the United States and between 20,000-25,000 in the world.

Threat: Polar bears, struggling from sea-ice habitat loss due to climate change, face threats from ongoing and imminent oil and gas development in the Arctic.


The Arctic’s most iconic species, the polar bear has become the poster child for the melting Arctic ice cap. This apex predator of the Arctic is in a fight it cannot win on its own. So uniquely adapted to the Arctic that only its breath is detectable by infrared photography, the polar bear evolved to exploit the Arctic sea ice and is completely dependent upon sea ice for survival.

Threats Faced By Fossil Fuel Development

The polar bear was the first mammal listed as threatened based solely on climate change threats. Reducing greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, which in turn are melting the polar ice caps, is one of the most important problem facing the governments of the world today. Scientists have noted an increase in drowning and starvation in polar bears as the sea ice melts.

Potential oil spills are also a severe threat to polar bears. A polar bear cannot regulate its body temperature when its coat is covered in oil. And, if the bear ingests the oil while grooming, it could die. Furthermore, ice seals, polar bears’ primary prey, are vulnerable to oiling and could pass contaminants to bears.

Recent years have brought immense political pressure for offshore oil drilling in polar bear habitat. As industrial activity increases, so does the risk of a catastrophic oil spill. Shell Oil is asking the federal government for permission to drill in the Arctic Ocean as soon as summer 2012.

There is no way to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, and during certain times of the year, any response may be impossible. Therefore, a large-scale oil spill could continue over many months, if not years. If a large spill reached polar bears along the coasts or on land waiting for sea ice to return, it could harm them in large numbers.

In considering a small-scale spill, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates up to eight percent of the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears could be oiled. Given more realistic spill scenarios, a larger number of bears could be immediately impacted. And, the inability to quickly contain or clean up a spill would magnify the long-term impact, potentially killing large numbers of bears.

Even in the absence of an oil spill, daily oil and gas activities negatively impact polar bears. Seismic testing, icebreaking activities, aircraft flights, and ship activity disturb polar bears, and their ice seal prey. Proposed Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations for oil and gas activities in the Beaufort Sea demonstrate these impacts: as many as 150 polar bears per year may experience distress from oil and gas activities in the Beaufort Sea alone, and as much as 20 percent of the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears could be impacted by industry operations in the next two years. Given that we already see starving and drowning polar bears, this additional stressor is gravely dangerous for polar bears.

In addition, Congress continues to push legislation to open the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The Coastal Plain is the most significant onland denning site for polar bears in the United States.

The oil industry has not proven it can develop in the Arctic responsibly. The Prudhoe Bay area, just west of the Arctic Refuge, is currently our nation’s largest industrial site and experiences an average of an oil spill per day.

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