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An Interview with Rick Steiner on the Kulluk Grounding Impact on Shell Arctic Drilling in 2013 and Beyond

9:08 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Retired University of Alaska Professor Rick Steiner is, along with Dr. Riki Ott, regarded internationally as a first-rank expert on Alaska’s marine ecosystems.  Additionally, Steiner is a highly sought after expert on the effects of oil spills on maritime environments.  Like Dr. Ott, Steiner was recently awarded the Alaska Muckraker of the Year Award from the state’s pre-eminent marine environment advocacy group, Cook InletKeeper.

Since his retirement, Prof. Steiner has been able to act more independently, and travel significantly more, than he was able to do while working in a university atmosphere and schedule.  After leaving the University of Alaska in 2010, Rick began an organization, Oasis Earth.  Here’s the organization’s description of what Rick is currently doing with Oasis Earth:

Today, he conducts the Oasis Earth project – a global consultancy working with NGOs, governments, industry, and civil society to speed the transition to an environmentally sustainable society. Oasis Earth conducts Rapid Assessments for NGOs in developing nations on critical conservation challenges, reviews environmental assessments, and conducts fully developed studies. Steiner presents Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril to audiences around the world, a presentation on the global environmental crisis and urgently needed solutions, using over 500 images from the UNEP International Photographic Competition for the Environment and NASA images of Earth from space. He continues to work on oil and environment issues, including oil spill prevention, response preparedness, damage assessment, and restoration. His primary focus is now on ecological habitat and biodiversity conservation; establishing Citizens Advisory Councils to advise industry and government; conservation finance; and extractive industry and environment issues, particularly oil, gas, and mining, in the Arctic and globally. Oasis Earth seeks to persuade government, industry, and civil society of the urgency of the global environment crisis, and the necessary regional solutions, particularly in government policy to incentivize sustainability.

I’ve known Prof. Steiner for over 20 years.  I dedicated Shadows, my 1993 electroacoustic musical composition about the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Rick, honoring his leadership role in critical decisions early in the spill, that helped save the fledgeling Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation Sawmill Bay hatchery from extinction.

I’ve asked Rick a few questions about what the impact the grounding of the Kulluk might have on how the public perceives Shell as a viable operator in Alaska’s Arctic, and about the impact of damage to the vessel on Shell’s immediate future plans.  For the sake of clarity, I’ll use my real name in the interview, rather than my longstanding Firedoglake nom de blog.

Near the end of the interview, Prof. Steiner predicts the Kulluk fiasco will keep Shell from drilling at all in the Alaskan Arctic during 2013.  This is significant, as Steiner is one of the most knowledgable people around on this.

Phil Munger:  You’ve been questioning Shell Oil’s methods, plans and equipment for their offshore drilling hopes in Alaska for quite a while. Whether it has been Bristol Bay, the Chukchi Sea or the Beaufort Sea, you have drawn attention to specific shortcomings in each of the company’s projections. Are there common flaws in their efforts and planning that you’ve been able to discern?

Rick Steiner:  Yes. Shell continues to assert that the company knows what it is doing offshore in the Arctic, and clearly, it doesn’t. Essentially Shell says: “don’t worry, be happy…trust us.” Well, we don’t.

The Kulluk grounding is the most recent in a long line of calamities from Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling program: the last-minute scramble to retrofit the two rigs, the countless problems with the Arctic Challenger response barge, the failed containment dome test, the near-grounding of the Noble Discoverer in Dutch Harbor, the cursory testing (for about 1 hour only) of the crucial capping stack that would be used to stem a blowout, the stack fire in the Discoverer, the propulsion issues in the Discoverer requiring it to be towed into Seward, the serious safety violations on the Discoverer causing the Coast Guard to detain it in port, and so on. Shell and the Obama administration are in such a rush to drill the Arctic OCS it seems they think they oil may leave…well, it won’t. They are behaving as though this is a Bristol Bay red salmon run, and unless they go and harvest it immediately, they’ll lose it. But this oil and gas has been there for millennia, and there should be no rush to pump it up into our disgracefully inefficient energy economy. These guys need to chill for a bit, and reconsider this folly.

The Kulluk grounding is only the most recent in an embarrassing string of failures not just for Shell, but for the Department of Interior (DOI) as well. (Shell’s Arctic drill plan has too many holes).

And that Shell and its contractors did not have a contingency plan for losing a tow on the Kulluk in heavy weather is simply beyond comprehension. It shows the poor safety culture, and contingency planning capability in Shell and the DOI. This is why we need an Arctic Regional Citizens Advisory Council (Arctic RCAC) to involve citizen stakeholders in oversight of all activities offshore.

Phil Munger:   Shell’s use of the Arctic Challenger, Noble Discoverer and Kulluk seem to be adaptation of proven, hardy hulls, built to withstand the ice, at first glance.  Yet the vessels’ age and long terms of non-use warrant notice.  Shell acquired the vessels rather inexpensively, but spent a lot attempting to update them.  Do you have any thoughts on why they pursued this strategy for important assets of such an expensive campaign?

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Federal Work Suspension of Leading Arctic Scientist Ended as Investigation of His Investigators Deepens

11:32 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

"polar bear swimming in the middle of the Beaufort Sea"

"polar bear swimming in the middle of the Beaufort Sea" by danielguip on flickr

Anchorage-based wildlife scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, has been ordered to return to work today:

The polar bear scientist who has spent more than a month suspended from his government job has now been told that he should report back to work on Friday — although NPR has learned that his job is changing and he will no longer manage federal contracts.

“Chuck is planning to go to work. He just doesn’t know what the work is going to be,” says attorney Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing legal representation for wildlife biologist Charles Monnett.

In 2006, Monnett published a report on his sightings of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic. The dead polar bears became a powerful — and controversial — symbol of the danger of melting ice and climate change.

Monnett was put on administrative leave on July 18 by the agency he works for at the Department of the Interior. The move came as Monnett was being investigated by the department’s Office of Inspector General.

That investigation is ongoing, and it is not clear what aspects of Monnett’s research or management work are still under scrutiny.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been representing Dr. Monnett throughout his harassment, issued a press release Thursday afternoon, which they have allowed me to print here in full (emphases added): Read the rest of this entry →

At Dr. Monnett’s “Crackpot Probe” Yesterday, Obama Administration Witch Hunters Show Up Their Own Lies

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Polar Bear

On Tuesday, the Obama administration’s inquisition against a leading Arctic scientist continued.

Back on July 19th, one of the country’s foremost experts on Arctic and Alaska habitats, Charles Monett, PhD, was suspended from his job as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), the successor agency to the discredited Minerals Management Services.  Here’s how Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) described his situation in a July 28th press release:

Dr. Charles Monnett, PhD, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), coordinates a significant portion of all BOEM extramural research and a majority of BOEM research on Arctic wildlife and ecology.  The Interior Inspector General (IG) is apparently investigating a 2006 note authored by Dr. 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, Dr. Monnett was suddenly suspended on July 18, 2011, 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,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the huge economic stakes for oil companies seeking to open Arctic waters in suppressing scientific research.

The next day, reacting to the PEER release, the Obama administration’s Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Michael R. Bromwich, issued a written denial regarding the focus of the investigation:

We are limited in what we can say about a pending investigation, but I can assure you that the decision had nothing to do with his scientific work, or anything relating to a five-year old journal article, as advocacy groups and the news media have incorrectly speculated. Nor is this a “witch hunt” to suppress the work of our many scientists and discourage them from speaking the truth. Quite the contrary. In this case, it was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently.

That same day,  BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz sent an email to the Alaska Dispatch, which said little and much, at the same time:

Although I cannot speak further regarding the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation, I feel it’s important to correct the inaccurate narrative that has been given to you (and is reported in your most recent article). This additional piece can only be attributed to a “source familiar with the administrative action,” given the nature of the ongoing investigation. I do not anticipate being able to further communicate on this ongoing issue, but will keep your contact info in case anything changes:

The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.

In the meantime, the national environmental organizations, Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, John Holdren, questioning the methods and focus of the investigation of Monnett.

On August 8th, Sen. James Imhofe, a relentless critic of science and its active practitioners, insinuated himself into the matter:

Separately Tuesday, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote the acting director of the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office, seeking clarification on the purpose of the investigation into Monnett.

Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Monnett’s work has been cited by witnesses before his committee and provided “the foundation” for the government’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming.

“As a result, critical habitat for the polar bear was designated, which added additional layers of onerous regulations to oil and gas development in 187,000 square miles of land in Alaska,” he said, adding that accusations against Monnett’s work “could be serious and have far reaching consequences.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Monnett was questioned for three hours.  Although the Interior IG and other government sources had denied in early August that the focus is either on Monnett’s peer-reviewed 2006 paper, or on how the University of Alberta contract was reviewed or let, that seemed to be the focus of the questions directed at the scientist:

Today’s interview between the Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) and a suspended Arctic scientist reveals that his 2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears remains the focus of the inquiry, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).   A new allegation surfaced that one of Interior’s top Arctic scientists, Dr. Charles Monnett, improperly steered a polar bear study to the University of Alberta, even though his agency had already approved it as a sole source contract.

The multi-month IG investigation is still ongoing but today’s interview with Dr. Monnett showed –

  • The IG is still focused on the scientific merit of a seven-page note authored by Dr. Monnett and a colleague published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology in 2006 which reported sightings of drowned polar bears in open waters following a storm;
  • The IG had questions about Dr. Monnett’s role during procurement of a research study titled “Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears” conducted by the Canadian University of Alberta but Dr. Monnett acted under the direction of agency contracting and procurement staff.  When pressed, the IG refused to answer how these transactions justified an unsuccessful referral to the Justice Department for prosecution; and
  • The IG took credit for prompting  the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM, the Interior unit where Dr. Monnett works) to issue a stop work order on the University of Alberta study but that stop work order was rescinded by the agency two weeks later and the study is ongoing.

PEER Executive Director, Jeff Ruch, (PEER is representing  Dr. Monnett) stated:

With each interview, it becomes more outrageous that government funds are being spent on this crackpot probe while paying Dr. Monnett’s salary to sit at home.  The [University of Alberta] study is a prime example of cost effective science in the public interest.  It was sole source to the Canadians because the Canadians were paying half the cost and were already doing much of the research.

It has also emerged that the government’s attention to the U of A contract is misdirected, as the contract was discussed long before the Polar bear sighting and paper had happened (more on this later).  At this time, the hold on the U of A contract has been lifted.

So far, the president’s inquisitors are not answering questions directed toward them about yesterday’s interrogation:

BOEMRE officials declined comment on Tuesday.

and:

A bureau spokeswoman declined comment.

Some, including this writer, have speculated that the attention brought down on Dr. Monnett is directly related to the Obama administration’s campaign to open the Arctic coast off Alaska to oil drilling, particularly by Shell, which has been granted exploratory permits since Monnett’s case came to public attention. If that is the case, it would not be the first time Dr. Monnett’s work has been the target of an oil giant.  Over 20 years ago, Exxon attacked him in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill:

Half the otters rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill died after they were released, suggesting the whole project was a bad idea, according to a study to be released at an Anchorage symposium this week.

An abstract of a paper by Charles Monnett and others studying the spill for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says only 23 of 45 otters implanted with radio devices are known to be alive. The others are missing or confirmed dead. One radio broke.

Missing otters are almost certainly dead because the ottertracking program is very reliable, Monnett said last month. The death rate is far more than would normally be expected.

“These data suggest that, despite the tremendous amount of money and energy that was directed toward the treatment and care of these animals, many or all of the sea otters that were released from the (rehabilitation) centers were not “rehabilitated,’ ” Monnett wrote in the abstract.

“We recommend that future policies focus on preventing otters from becoming oiled, rather than attempting to treat them after oiling has occurred,” the abstract said.

But Randall Davis, an Exxon-hired scientist who ran the otter rescue, said Monnett is wrong to assume missing otters are dead. He said about half Monnett’s otters counted as dead are only missing.

Also, Davis said the results from the radio tag study may not reflect the fate of all the otters released. He said the surgery of implanting the transmitters may have contributed to their demise.

But Monnett said his team of five workers has logged 1,000 hours in aircraft looking for the missing otters from Sitka to Homer. He assumes the otters are dead and drifted to sea or sank. The radios don’t transmit when covered with only 2 inches of salt water.

Monnett’s conclusion, “we recommend that future policies focus on preventing otters from becoming oiled, rather than attempting to treat them after oiling has occurred,” based on prevention of oil spills, rather than mitigating their negative impact, goes counter to speeding up Shell’s permitting process.

This week, Alaska saw Interior Secretary Salazar here, to announce big Arctic development plans:

Salazar joined Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed for a meeting with Alaska business people and said the president’s feeling toward Arctic offshore drilling is “Let’s take a look at what’s up there and see what it is we can develop.”

But any Arctic oil development must be done carefully, he said. Salazar said the Arctic lacks needed infrastructure for responding to potential offshore oil spills and cited painful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“Not the mightiest companies with multibillion-dollar pockets were able to do what needed to be done in a timely basis, and the representations of preparation simply turned out not to be true from the oil companies that had a legal obligation to shut down that kind of an oil spill. …,” Salazar told Alaska reporters. “When you look at the Arctic itself, we recognize that there are different realities — the ocean is a much shallower ocean, conditions are very different than we had in the Gulf of Mexico. (But) there are challenges that are unique to the Arctic.”

Salazar said a step toward a solution is “having an agency within the United States government and Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulation, that can in fact do its job.”

On July 13th, Obama signed an executive order to “create a new federal working group tasked with having agencies better coordinate Alaska oil and gas permitting and other regulatory oversight. The White House said the working group, which is overseen by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, is designed to simplify oil and gas decision-making in Alaska by bringing together federal agencies to collaborate as they evaluate permits and environmental reviews.”

Six days later, Dr. Monnett was suspended.

The only Alaska Natives Salazar has been scheduled to meet here seem to be proponents of “Drill, Baby Drill!!”  Native groups have sided with Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity in their attempt to obtain correspondence between Shell and BOEMRE, or other government agencies, through the Freedom of Information Act.  At Tuesday’s press availability with Salazar and Sen. Begich, the question of the investigation of Dr. Charles Monnett does not appear to have been breached.

How convenient.  The reporters seem to be keeping their heads down.  Now if only those pesky scientists would learn those same traits.

Obama in Witch Hunt Against a Leading Alaska-Based Scientist and Polar Bear Expert

10:41 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Polar bears stranded on thin ice in the great debate: energy, environment economy

Here we go again.

The Bush administration hounded University of Alaska ocean science  Prof. Rick Steiner into retirement.  (I know – it ended during the Obama administration, but the creaky wheels of squelching an honest voice for science began under his predecessor).  Now the Obama administration is taking this a step further, by assigning a criminal investigative team with no scientific background to go after Dr. Charles Monnett, a highly respected, Anchorage-based scientist, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. He was suspended ten days ago.

I suspect that the more agressive this investigation gets, the more political contributions will come Obama’s way from Shell Oil.  I think BP may have already maxed out what they can give him.

As in the case of Prof. Steiner, the first to come to Dr. Monnett’s defense is Public Empoyees for Environmental Responsibility.

Here is their press release (reprinted in full with PEER permission):

ARCTIC SCIENTIST PROTESTS WITCH HUNT ON POLAR BEAR PAPER Key Studies Disrupted as Supervising Federal Scientist Suspended from Duties

Washington, DC — One of the country’s top Arctic scientists is being hounded in a political attempt to impugn his observations on polar bears’ vulnerability to retreating sea ice, according to a scientific misconduct complaint filed today on his behalf by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) against Interior Department officials.  The scientist is now on administrative leave and forbidden from communicating with co-workers, thus disrupting a large portfolio of ongoing scientific research. Read the rest of this entry →

Sen. Vitter Fingered for Screwing with Holdren and Lubchenco Science Appointments

2:56 pm in climate change, Legislature by EdwardTeller

On Saturday, I wrote a post for Oxdown Gazette, wondering who had placed a hold on two important science appointments in the Obama administration. Sunday I received emails suggesting the culprit putting holds on the nomination of Dr. John Holdren as Obama’s science advisor, and on Dr. Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Calls early this afternoon to one of the Senators on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation in Washington D.C. (and to another source in DC) confirmed that the holds have been requested by Sen. Vitter. Nobody felt at liberty to tell me why the holds have been placed, but my last source stated, "We want these nominations to proceed as soon as possible."

Sen. Vitter was the only Senator to make a fuss during the February 12 nomination hearings. Here’s how Mike Dunford from the Panda’s Thumb described part of Vitter’s questioning of Holdren: Read the rest of this entry →

Nomination Hearing for Jane Lubchenco at NOAA and John Holdren at White House Science Scheduled

1:12 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

On Thursday the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold a nomination hearing for Dr. Jane Lubchenco, one of the most prestigious climate scientists active today. President Obama has nominated her to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

This morning, I spoke to Julie Hrdlick, administrative assistant for the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee about the nomination schedule and coverage.

The Lubchenco nomination hearing is scheduled for sometime after 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. The full committee has an executive session scheduled for 10:00 a.m. that day. They will probably settle the final subcommittee assignments for the 111th congress during the executive session.

Also scheduled for the Thursday nomination event is Dr. John Holdren, nominated to be Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

Here’s the current listing for the nominations hearing, at the subcommittee’s web page:
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Gov. Sarah Palin Heads to DC – Sen. Mark Begich Comes Home to Alaska – The Hidden Stories

12:57 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

begich.thumbnail.jpg

That Mavericky Sarah is headed to DC to pal around with Obama at the Alfalfa. That’s Saturday. Tonight, Sarah kicks off her 2012 campaign against Washington insiders, by being the guest-of-honor with Nixon fixer Fred Malek, an insider’s insider.

As Palin heads east, Mark Begich will make his first Alaska appearance since being sworn in as our junior US Senator. I’ll be attending Sen. Begich’s first Alaska press conference this afternoon in Anchorage.

There is a lot to catch up on at the end of this busy week in Alaska events. First, Palin, then Begich.

Part One – Gov. Sarah Palin:

With the launch of SarahPAC at the beginning of the last week in January, Sarah Palin managed to re-insinuate herself into the national news. Apparently, Palin feels better there than she does dealing with Alaska affairs.

Last weekend, Palin snubbed an important Alaska Native event, the Southcentral Foundation’s 12th Annual "Gathering," at Anchorage’s new Denai’na Convention Center. The event, which centers on health issues and draws a huge crowd, seems like the kind of exposure Gov. Palin might appreciate. Maybe she had been tipped off that former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, the commissioner Palin fired, creating "Troopergate," was there. Read the rest of this entry →

Palin Claims She’ll Be at the Alfalfa Club Dinner to See Obama

1:26 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, told reporters Wednesday morning about upcoming travel plans, including Saturday’s annual Alfalfa Club Dinner.

Speaking briefly with reporters this morning outside of the Juneau Governor’s mansion, Palin stated, "The Alfalfa dinner, yes, in fact that’s because president Obama is scheduled to be there. And how often will I have an opportunity to have dinner with the president. I will take up that offer to do so, yeah.”

I have to say that Anchorage Daily News reporter, Sean Cockerham, into the third week of his new stint as the ADN’s state capitol-legislative session reporter, has already developed a knack at transcribing Palin’s strangely nuanced, sometimes fractured syntax. Here are a couple of extended quotes from his ADN politics blog entry:
Read the rest of this entry →