• Lower-court ruling ending bear-protection measures overturned
  • Fewer than 1,000 polar bears remain in northern Alaska

A 187,000 square-mile swath of land and sea in Alaska was restored by a federal appeals court as a “critical habitat” for polar bears, a boon for the endangered species and yet another blow to Alaska’s tumbling petroleum industry.

Monday’s ruling overturned a lower court decision siding with Alaska state officials and energy industry groups which argued that protections for the bears ordered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service six years ago were too arbitrary be enforced.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco will affect all proposed greenfield and expansion projects along the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska and east of Russia. Existing projects are likely to be grandfathered in, said Brendan Cummings, a lawyer for the Center of Biological Diversity in Joshua Tree, California, representing environmental groups involved in the case.

“This is a critical decision for polar bears and the issue of climate change,” Cummings said. “But it’s not an absolute prohibition on activity and in my experience, and as a practical matter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rarely sees a project they don’t like.”

The polar bear population has been declining for at least a decade, falling to under 1,000 in the disputed region as of 2010 when the federal wildlife agency first imposed the critical habitat rule. The decision is the latest in a line of actions that have gone against Alaska’s oil and gas industry, including an October order by the Interior Department that halted drilling off its coast for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term.

Alaska’s crude oil production has been in gradual decline after peaking in the late 1980s, from 2 million barrels a day in 1988 to about 500,000 a day in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The American Petroleum Institute said it would review the court’s decision and consider its options.

“The U.S. can sustain and build on our nation’s positive energy trajectory while protecting the polar bear and providing greater regulatory certainty not only to the oil and natural gas industry but also to all U.S. manufacturers,” API said in an e-mailed statement.

The case is Alaska Oil and Gas Association v. Jewel, 13-35619, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).

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