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Environment: Arctic scientist resigns after battling his own federal agency over transparency and scientific ethics

 

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Too much oil, not enough science ….

Harassment of prominent researcher likely aimed at stifling scientists

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — A scientist who was targeted by a politically driven investigation has retired from the federal agency that is supposed to regulate oil development in the Arctic after settling his whistleblower complaint against the U.S. Department of Interior.

Dr. Charles Monnett, a senior scientist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, was hectored for several years after publishing observations about drowning polar bears. The witch hunt ended in October with the Department of Interior withdrawing its letter of reprimand and paying Monnett $100,000.

“It’s a relief to be able to speak,” Monnett said, expressing his belief that the investigation was intended squelch scientific evidence that would make it more difficult to issue oil and gas drilling permits in the sensitive Arctic environment.

“His own agency went after him,” said Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Documentation uncovered by PEER suggests the goal of Monnett’s superiors was to “plug a leak and root out a dissident,” said Ruch, who represented Monnett during the investigation and subsequent whistle-blower proceedings.

Monnett’s case illustrates the intense political pressure to develop Alaska’s oil resources at nearly any cost — including casting aside the rational, science-based approach that is supposed to drive federal decision-making.

“Most people who aren’t willing to totally cooperate and look the other way are going to have some issues … I believe in transparency and science. The only way to manage resources like that is to have accurate information,” Monnett said. “But they do everything they can to try and avoid having someone bring information forward if it might slow the permitting process,” he said.

Monnett’s Arctic research career started in the 1980s with studies of sea otters in Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ultimately spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil after running aground on a reef.

In recent years, he headed up a research program aimed at creating some sorely needed  baseline information on Arctic ecology — data that would be valuable to regulatory agencies if they were truly committed to a science-based management approach.

Since the investigation started, those studies have all been reassigned and the flow of important new research through BOEM has largely ceased, as many other senior scientist were also driven out of the agency.

After publishing his polar bear observations, Monnett found himself facing investigators making unspecified allegations. Despite numerous interrogations, searches of tens of thousands of emails and four separate criminal referrals (all rejected) against Monnett and his coauthor, BOEM found no scientific error by either scientist.

“This agency attempted to silence me, discredit me and our work and send a chilling message to other scientists at a key time when permits for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic were being considered,” Monnett said in a statement issued via PEER. “They failed on the first two goals, but I believe that what they did to me did make others afraid to speak up, even internally.

“Following over two years of hell for me and my family, my name has been cleared and the accusations against the scientific findings in our paper have been shown to be groundless” Monnett said.  “However, I can no longer in good conscience work for an agency that promotes dishonesty, punishes those who actually stand up for scientific integrity, and that cannot tolerate scientific work not pre-shaped to serve its agenda.”

Following its inability to identify any scientific error, BOEM ultimately issued Dr. Monnett a letter of reprimand, the lowest level of discipline, for a series of five emails he sent to outside individuals in 2007 and 2008 – actions the agency had known about since before the IG investigation but never acted upon.

Subsequently. Monnett filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel on several grounds, including that the emails documented BOEM legal violations in trying to ram through Arctic offshore drilling permits that were later thrown out in court.

Under terms of an agreement mediated through OSC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Program:

•    The letter of reprimand has been withdrawn;
•    Dr. Monnett was given a Cooperative Conservation Award from the Interior Secretary which he won back in 2010 but from which his name had inexplicably been removed;
•    Interior paid Dr. Monnett $100,000;
•    Dr. Monnett retired on November 15th. after more than 20 years of federal service;
•    Dr. Monnett agreed to “not reapply to any position with the Department of Interior or any of its Bureaus for a period of five (5) years from the effective date of this Settlement Agreement”; and
•    He withdrew a pending lawsuit and administrative appeal filed under the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act for documents relating to the IG investigation and the role of top BOEM officials.

“Dr. Monnett made it clear that he wanted to return to meaningful scientific work again but could not foresee that being possible anymore inside Interior,” Ruch said. “If there was any doubt, the five-year employment ban on such a well-qualified, award-winning scientist makes it unmistakably clear that independent scientific views are not welcome in any corner of the Department of Interior.”

Links courtesy PEER:

Read the settlement agreement

Revisit three-year IG investigation

See the Monnett whistleblower complaint

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