ENDANGERED SPECIES:

White House clears habitat protections for polar bear

The White House yesterday completed its review of proposed habitat protections for the polar bear, clearing the Interior Department to introduce the regulations.

The White House Office of Management and Budget determined the rule was not economically significant or a "major rule," putting it on a potentially faster track for completion. OMB sent the rule back to the Interior Department yesterday, two weeks after receiving the proposal -- a relatively quick turnaround for the agency.

But once proposed, the habitat protections could add another layer in what has become a complicated process for protecting the bear, fraught with concerns and legal complaints from environmentalists and industry groups.

The George W. Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species last year because of its melting ice habitat. The decision -- itself the result of a lawsuit -- brought on a bevy of other legal complaints from environmentalists, hunting groups, industry groups and the state of Alaska.

A partial legal settlement over one of those lawsuits led Interior to agree to propose critical habitat for the bear. The agency is on a legal deadline to finalize the habitat protections by June 2010.

Critical habitat designations prohibit federal agencies from permitting actions that harm protected species within those areas.

The habitat protections could create more controversy over how federal officials should deal with climate change that is changing the bear's current habitat and what level of protections the bears need from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

Environmental groups want the habitat protections to address oil and gas development and protect not only land where the polar bear currently dwells but also the habitat it has lost from global warming.

An exception included in the polar bear's listing rule allows oil and gas companies to operate in the bear's habitat, one of the issues environmentalists challenged in a lawsuit against the administration.

In the final months of the Bush administration, the Interior Department launched a controversial plan to ramp up offshore drilling in Alaska, as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The Obama administration is moving forward with that plan. The department closed a public comment period last month but has not set a timetable for a final decision.