A House of Representatives committee on global warming called on the Interior Department to hold off auctioning oil and gas leases in northwest Alaska's Chukchi Sea until the department decides whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed the decision last week for at least another 30 days and a ruling isn't expected before the Feb. 6 oil and gas lease sale by the Minerals Management Service.
The agency estimates that the Chukchi Sea holds 15 billion barrels of oil and as much as 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
"Every time there is a choice between extinction and extraction in this administration, extraction wins," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "This must not be the case for the polar bear."
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have said that restricting oil and gas development or the subsistence hunting of polar bears wouldn't be enough to prevent population declines.
The directors of both Fish and Wildlife and Minerals Management reiterated that finding earlier this month. All three agencies are within the Interior Department.
"We wouldn't be proceeding with this sale if we weren't comfortable
But officials acknowledge that climate change has led to the loss of vast expanses of polar sea ice, which the bears need.
"We need to be doing something about climate change starting yesterday," said Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "There needs to be a serious effort to try to control greenhouse gases, which is probably the only thing we have control over."
Polar bears are considered marine mammals because they depend on sea ice for hunting seals, but they den on land. As sea ice has retreated, polar bears must swim farther and expend more energy to reach it.
A U.S. Geological Survey study issued this summer found that in the next 50 years, shrinking sea ice will leave only a small population of polar bears in the islands of the Canadian Arctic.
Two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including those along the coasts of Alaska and Russia, are projected to disappear. One-fifth of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world live on the coast of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
If polar bears are listed as threatened, it will be the first time that a species is placed on the endangered list because of the threat of global warming to its habitat.
Such a groundbreaking decision has taken longer than officials thought, Hall said.
"It's not just making the decision, it's making it clear and why," he said.
The congressional hearing hinted at the global impact of such a decision and its potential to turn polar bears into the main symbol of the effects of climate change.
The hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd of spectators and journalists. Several children dressed in fuzzy white polar bear costumes held up signs reading, "Oil greed destroying the world" and "Don't drill in my home."
After the hearing, Markey filed legislation that would force the Interior Department to delay selling the Chukchi Sea leases.
Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., along with nine other senators -- seven Democrats and two independents -- signed a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne asking that he delay the leases.
Kempthorne could "turn this upside-down decision right side up in a nanosecond if he wanted to," Markey said. "In the end, if this is not fixed, it is Mr. Kempthorne who is to blame. I hope he understands the importance of his decision."