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.
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.