"An oil spill in Alaska's Chukchi sea could spell disaster for many polar bears. The only explanation for the Interior Department's insistence on drilling in polar bear habitat is its lopsided commitment to doing favors for oil companies and special interests.

"After seven years of pandering to oil companies, selling off pristine polar bear habitat the size of Pennsylvania simply goes too far."

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The U.S. Interior Department moved ahead today with auctioning oil and gas leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, despite stiff opposition from conservation groups and some members of Congress.

The Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northern coast has also been called the Polar Bear Sea because it is prime habitat for the bear. The lease sale encompasses about 30 million acres, the equivalent of the state of Pennsylvania.

A decision on whether to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was expected weeks ago, but has been stalled. Many have questioned the timing of that decision, saying it appears the listing was shelved to allow the leasing to move ahead first.

Last week, Audubon joined other conservation groups together with Alaska natives in suing to force the agency to reassess the legality and environmental impact of oil and gas leasing in the Chukchi Sea.

According to internal documents released by the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Interior Department ignored warnings by agency scientists that oil spills in the Chukchi would harm polar bears.