Polar Bear Brawl: Dem Blasts Exxon Over Research

The debate over the future of Alaskan polar bears is heating up, as a crucial government deadline passes.

A key Democratic congressman accused ExxonMobil last week of pushing junk science intended to fool the public into believing Alaskan polar bears are not in danger.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently concluded that climate change and other factors would reduce the global polar bear population by two thirds by 2050, and wipe out the Alaskan polar bear population entirely. Newer research has indicated that could happen even more quickly.

But a new scientific paper, funded in part by ExxonMobil, called some of that research into question, and has been used in efforts to keep polar bears off the government's endangered species list.

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Environmentalists have for years pushed the federal government to categorize the animal as "threatened," which would afford it increased environmental protections. That could complicate petroleum companies' efforts to develop oil and gas operations in Alaska if they were found to impact the bears' habitat. It could also put increased regulatory pressure on industries which emit greenhouse gases.

Opponents of the effort, including the State of Alaska, have cited a recent article in a research journal for support, whose authors thank ExxonMobil and others for funding their work.

While recognizing the possible impact of climate change on the polar bear, the authors concluded "it is simply not prudent to overstate the certainty" that climate change, or any other single factor, is responsible for "observed patterns in polar bear population ecology." The article, which was labeled a "Viewpoint" essay because it contained no new research, was published in the September issue of the Journal of Ecological Complexity.

In their conclusion, the article's authors thanked ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute for their financial backing. They noted that the paper's views were "independent of sources providing support."

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairman of the oversight and investigations panel for the Science and Technology Committee, blasted the piece as "a facade of scientific respectability for those who say the polar bear is just fine." In his letter to ExxonMobil, Miller asked the company to provide all of its records from the past five years relating to its support of scientists studying polar bears and other arctic animals.

ExxonMobil spokesman Gantt Walton responded to Miller's letter, saying it was "ridiculous" to conclude that the company has control over the researchers' work. ExxonMobil "does not request nor direct specific studies," he said. Nevertheless, "we have provided a lot of information to the congressman in the past and we will work with him on this issue."

The fate of the polar bear has sparked the public's concern. On Monday, several activists in polar bear costumes joined protesters outside the U.S. Capitol, carrying signs identifying them as "Polar bears for solutions to war and global warming."

Americans have reportedly submitted more than 600,000 comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to grant the polar bear protected status. The deadline for comments passed Monday, and a final ruling is expected in January.

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