Battle over Alaska offshore oil drilling heats up
By Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY — Last summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico clearly showed the conflict between science, energy policy and politics, and the looming battle over drilling in Arctic waters will be no different, as a watchdog group claims that federal scientists are being muzzled and harassed over their efforts to disclose potential impacts of energy development in the fragile Arctic marine environment.
Dr. Charles Monnet, a senior federal scientist working the Arctic has been placed on administrative leave and is being investigated by the Interior Department’s Inspector General. Such inspections are not uncommon, but what’s unusual in this case is that the researcher says he has no idea what the investigators are looking for.
But a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog and whistle-blower protection group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says the investigation is designed to interfere with scientific research that points out the dangers of Arctic drilling. In a scientific misconduct complaint filed last week, the group charged that Monnet is “being hounded in a political attempt to impugn his observations on polar bears’ vulnerability to retreating sea ice.”
“We think they’re nervous about his portfolio of science in the Arctic,” said PEER director Jeff Ruch, explaining that there’s enormous pressure to move ahead with offshore drilling in the region.
Monnett is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement who coordinated a significant portion of all the extramural research and a majority of BOEM research on Arctic wildlife and ecology. The Interior Inspector General is apparently investigating a 2006 note authored by Monnett and a colleague published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology which reported sightings of drowned polar bears in open waters following a storm.
This seven-page paper, which had undergone internal peer review, management review and outside peer review coordinated by journal editors, galvanized scientific and public appreciation for the profound effects that climate change may already be having in the Arctic.
Although the IG probe has been going on for months, Monnett was suddenly suspended on July 18 due to the IG’s “on-going inquiry.” He has not been informed of any specific charge or question relating to the scientific integrity of his work, nor is it clear why the IG has mounted a multi-month investigation of a five-year-old journal article. IG interview transcripts do reveal, however, that –
• The probe is being conducted by criminal investigators with no scientific training or background, who, based upon their questions, have little grasp of the scientific issues they are investigating;
• They have rifled through all of Dr. Monnett’s e-mails and seized his papers and equipment, impeding his ability to work even before he was ordered to stay home; and
• The investigators are seeking a link to former Vice President Al Gore, who referenced the polar bear paper in his book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
“Ever since this paper was published, Dr. Monnett has been subjected to escalating official harassment, culminating in his recent virtual house arrest,” Ruch said in a press release. He thinks the huge economic stakes for oil companies seeking to open Arctic waters is resulting in the suppression of scientific research.
“This is a cautionary tale with a deeply chilling message for any federal scientist who dares to publish groundbreaking research on conditions in the Arctic,” Ruch said.
BOEM officials said they wouldn’t comment on the substance of the investigation.
“All of the scientific contracts previously managed by Mr. Monnett are being managed by the highly qualified scientists at BOEMRE. Any allegations regarding scientific integrity would be addressed through the Department’s new scientific integrity policy. The investigation is being handled by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General,” said Melissa Schwartz,
deputy chief of staff and communications director for BOEMRE.
The plot thickened July 29, when the Alaska Dispatch obtained a leaked copy of a memo from BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich, which claimed that the suspension had nothing to do with Monnet’s research.
“In this case, it was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently,” Bromwich wrote. Read the memo here.
Yet a transcript of one of the interviews conducted by the Interior Inspector General contradicts those statements, showing that the investigators were focusing in on Monnet’s polar bear research.
That leaves Monnet in a Kafka-esque maze of bureaucracy, and BOEMRE’s Arctic research program in disarray.
Earlier this year, the Interior Department, the parent agency for BOEM, adopted its first ever scientific integrity policies designed to protect scientists from political interference. The PEER complaint charges that officials within the IG and BOEM are violating these new policies in using Star Chamber-like tactics.
“Despite bold rhetoric about respecting science, this case illustrates that federal scientists working in controversial areas today are at greater risk than during the Bush administration,” Ruch said, pointing to heightened pressure on Alaska BOEM scientists to expedite offshore drilling approvals under President Obama. “If Interior’s scientific integrity policies offer no protection to scientists like Dr. Monnett, they are not worth the paper on which they are printed.”
- Read complaint of scientific misconduct filed for Dr. Monnett
- See the polar bear article
- Look at his suspension order
- Peruse IG interview of Dr. Monnett
- View the scope of scientific studies Dr. Monnett oversees
- Review history of retaliation against scientists in BOEM Alaska Office
- Examine Interior’s new scientific integrity policies