Environment: Arctic researcher Dr. Charles Monnett back at work after feds lift suspension, but investigation continues

Is the investigation of Dr. Charles Monnett about polar bears, or about the integrity of federal scientific contracting policies? PHOTO BY STEVEN AMSTRUP/USGS.

Scientist still under cloud, as watchdog group launches counter-investigation of federal agency

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Dr. Charles Monnett, a federal researcher who was suspended in mid-July and investigated for his handling of scientific contracts is back at work today — but the investigation continues, according to Melissa Schwartz, the deputy chief of Staff and communications director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement.

“He was informed that he will have no role in developing or managing contracts of any kind, and will instead be in our environmental assessment division … The Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) independent investigation is ongoing,” Schwarz said via email.

“There is no truth to any suggestion that the return to work is in any way tied to PEER’s allegations against bureau leadership,” she continued, referring to charges by an environmental watchdog and whistle-blower protection group that the investigation of Monnett is a scientific witch hunt related to the scientist’s publication of a 2006 paper on potential global warming impacts to polar bears.

While working on another research project, Monnett observed several drowned polar bears. When those observations were published in a short paper, global warming activists latched on to the idea that melting polar ice would lead to a rapid loss in polar bear habitat, resulting in a population crash. Since, then, other research, notably by the U.S. Geological Survey, has reached similar conclusions, suggesting a precipitous decline in polar bear numbers in the coming decades.

Since BOEMRE is in the process of reviewing and permitting several offshore oil-drilling projects in Alaska waters, the investigations and allegations in the Monnett case have become highly politicized and ideological.

Transcripts of interviews with Monnett clearly suggest that the Inspector General investigators were focusing on Monnett’s polar bear paper, with nearly all of the questions relating to that subject.

But in an Aug. 15 letter to Monnett, the IG investigators zeroed in on Monnett’s role in reviewing and approving a scientific contract, suggesting that his role in that review may have steered the contract toward the University of Alberta.  Monnett’s roles may have “highly inappropriate under procurement integrity policies and procedures,” the letter suggests.

The New York Times Greenwire blog covered the latest developments here.

Other BOEM scientists have come forward to defend Monnett’s handling of the contracting procedures as completely appropriate and standard under agency policies, and a strongly worded Aug. 16 letter from a group of Australian scientists accuses the U.S. government of taking actions reminiscent of the totalitarian Soviet Union.

BOEMRE said Monnett is returning to work because federal regulations create a presumption against lengthy administrative leaves. Lengthier administrative leaves are reserved for exceptional situations when all other options are considered insufficient to adequately protect the government’s interests.

“The return of an employee to work does not suggest that future administrative actions cannot/will not be taken,” Schwartz’s email concluded.

PEER director Jeff Ruch suggested that the federal case against Monnett is on the verge of imploding, and suggested that BOEMRE should apologize to Monnett rather than pursuing the investigation.

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One Response

  1. This is an interesting development. We’ll see what the next movement on the subject will entail. I’ll this about the drilling for oil in the Arctic, the isolation, conditions, risks are of a nature that there can’t be any cut corners as have been experienced in other waters. Like it or not, humans make mistakes in these matters, their tract record isn’t stellar, nor is it building confidence that it wont result in a situation worse than what happened in the Gulf last year. Just because it’s a different player, doesn’t mean a thing. As far as building an Island of rocks to set the drilling rig upon, well, dream on if anyone believes that will prevent any spill from contaminating the Arctic Ocean.

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