Bush Administration Looks at Climate Impact on Animals
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration will examine whether a growing number of species, including polar bears affected by thinning sea ice, are at risk from global warming and need federal protection, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Friday.
"We have to ask ourselves that. And by 'we,' I mean not only those in the department, but we the public, the policy-makers," Kempthorne told The Associated Press. "The president has put very strong emphasis on this, to examine this whole issue of climate change."
Kempthorne wouldn't specify how climate change effects on possibly threatened species might alter the administration's opposition to mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"We need to see where this is going to finally end up with the polar bear, but we're asking those questions," he said. "The fact that we went ahead and said we need to do a proposed listing says that we're willing to look at the data and step forward."
Last December, Kempthorne proposed designating polar bears as a "threatened" species deserving of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, because of melting Arctic sea ice from global warming. That category is second to "endangered" on the government's list of species believed most likely to become extinct.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must study how much sea ice has been lost, how fast it's melting and how that affects polar bears before Kempthorne makes a final decision by the end of the year. Such a decision could have broader repercussions.
"Data that we will get from this ... that's going to be a part of the information that's brought into the bigger discussion on climate change," he said.
On another matter, Kempthorne said he intends to fix the problem of lost oil and gas royalties from Clinton administration contracts with oil companies. A government leasing mistake on the deep-water leases issued in 1998-99 for the Gulf of Mexico omitted a provision that would have triggered royalty payments once the market price for the oil or gas reached a certain level.
That could wind up costing the government an estimated $10 billion eventually.
"It should not have been omitted. We think that a decision was made to omit," he said. "We don't know what the motivation was. But it did occur, it shouldn't occur again, and I don't believe it will."
The department has been negotiating with 22 companies to recoup nearly $1 billion in lost royalties so far. Six companies have reached agreements that would reap the government $1.42 billion in additional royalties from future production under the flawed leases.
Ten months into the job, Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and U.S. senator, said he sent employees reminders on ethical behavior and taken other steps to avoid the kinds of questions about conflicts of interest that dogged Interior officials under his predecessor, Gale Norton.
"One of my adages is 'If in doubt, don't,' " he said.
Kempthorne also has created an "accountability board" to help him decide what has occurred with employees on a case-by-case basis.
"If anybody has had a violation, for example the (improper) use of the Internet, they're not eligible for bonuses," he said. "Based on the nature of it, the conduct of it, you may be dismissed first offense, not the second or third."
The department has been providing information to federal prosecutors related to the Jack Abramoff grand jury probe, he said, including interviews with Justice Department officials and other investigators with Interior's inspector general's office.
Convicted influence peddler Abramoff traded on his alleged lobbying influence at Interior to sway casino deals toward his Indian tribal clients' liking.
In January, Interior's former No. 2 official, J. Steven Griles, was told that he is a target in the probe. Roger Stillwell, a former Interior employee who provided Abramoff with information from the department, was sentenced to two years probation and fined $1,000 in January for failing to report gifts football and concert tickets from Abramoff.
"There's been a few unfortunate situations that have occurred," Kempthorne said. "Some of that is certainly part of the ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice."
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Interior Department: http://www.doi.gov
Source: Associated Press