In February 2011, Charles Monnett, an Arctic marine biologist who in 2006 published the first observations of a decline in the polar bear population of the Arctic due to melting sea ice, was interviewed by Eric May and Lynn Gibson from the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General. The conversation was perplexing. May and Gibson, criminal investigators with the IG, began by suggesting that Monnett was being investigated for scientific misconduct, but early on in the conversation they admitted that neither of them had any training in science and biology.
From there, the transcript of the conversation, a document released by Monnett’s legal representation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), becomes murkier. May and Gibson’s line of questioning shifts several times, making it increasingly unclear what aspects of misconduct were being investigated. Monnett explains that his findings, published in Polar Biology, were peer-reviewed; May responds by asking how Polar Biology got involved. Monnett painstakingly takes May and Gibson through the calculations and observations underlying his data, but they seem dissatisfied and change tacks.
What happened after isn’t murky at all. Soon after the interview, Dr. Monnett’s hard drive and notebooks were seized. In July 2011, Monnett found out from his employer, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), that he had been put been put on administrative leave, barring him from speaking to his colleagues or continuing his research.
The investigation had turned in to a virtual witch-hunt—but when the IG finally released its report toward the end of 2012, its only allegations were of an administrative nature. Monnett subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint against BOEMRE, alleging that the official harassment had impeded him from doing his job and that the Interior Department was violating its own scientific integrity policies intended to protect federal scientists from political interference. In November 2013, Monnett reached a $100,000 settlement with BOEMRE.
The tale of Dr. Monnett is now a few years old, but instructive. Both Monnett and PEER have maintained that Monnett was harassed and essentially eliminated from the ranks of BOEMRE because he represented a threat to the financial stakes of oil companies like Shell hoping to open up the Alaskan Arctic for offshore drilling projects, and that suppressing scientific research was seen as necessary for Shell’s permits to go through. At the time, BOEMRE had been reviewing Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. It approved those permits in 2012, and again, in a highly contentious decision by the Obama administration, earlier this year.
Now, years after the debacle, Monnett says he has complex feelings about the dynamics of the science done in federal agencies, given how overbearing the oil industry is and its pervasive influence on the government.
The Bush administration, Monnett recalls, had “created an environment where the managers [of BOEMRE] were very hostile and aggressive towards some of the scientists…which led to a number of people leaving the agency. These people were being actively attacked by managers, screamed at in hallways, threatened with all sorts of actions. Some of them were even being threatened with legal action. The agency just wasn’t receptive to honest analysis.”
“Because of pressure from industry and the administration…certain timelines had to be met, and those timelines weren’t long enough to allow [scientists] to do complete analysis. Management was dictating the outcomes…which is against the law in my view.”
The Bush administration’s agenda from the very beginning was pro-drilling, and therefore invested in fast-tracking Shell’s permits for the Arctic. During the administration’s tenure, there was a mass exodus of scientists from BOEMRE—at the time known as the Minerals Management Service—who were under pressure to overlook the overwhelming environmental concerns of Arctic oil drilling in their analyses.
But Monnett’s investigation began in 2011, not during the Bush administration but during the Obama administration, foretelling Obama’s climate legacy of paying lip service to climate change while fast-tracking Shell’s offshore drilling plans all the same.
On Monday morning, President Obama arrived in Alaska to shed “a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans’ lives right now.” The trip, mere weeks after the final approvalfor Shell’s summer plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea, is likely to be seen in retrospect as illustrative of the schizophrenic energy policy the Obama administration has long espoused.
The Limits of Academic Freedom
Scientific suppression and the loss of many scientists to BOEMRE during the Bush administration have been well-documented, but as Dr. Monnett’s case reveals, something similar, if not worse, has been underfoot during the current administration. As the case of Professor Rick Steiner demonstrates, the influence of oil goes well beyond federal agencies in Alaska.
A tenured professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska, Steiner spent a large part of his career in the Arctic and then Anchorage, Alaska. Steiner had been a vocal opponent of offshore oil drilling since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and a staunch defender of marine conservation—positions that got him in to trouble multiple times during his career.
In December 2007, soon after Monnett’s polar bear paper was published, there was a federal proposed rule to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, Gov. Sarah Palin publicly stated that Alaska state marine mammal biologists (ADFG) disagreed with the rule, but Steiner was unsatisfied. After much resistance from the ADFG, he obtained the state review through a federal Freedom of Information Act request. The review, underscoring the dishonesty of the Palin administration, showed that marine mammal scientists overwhelmingly agreed that polar bears should be classified as endangered. This move, and many others, put Steiner on the radar as a staunch advocate of marine conservation and opponent of the pervasive influence of the oil industry in Alaska.
In 2008, when the federal government began to consider an expansion of oil development projects in Alaska, Steiner continued to raise major environmental concerns. Written records released by PEER chart out what happened next: the University of Alaska and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration terminated the grant funding for Steiner’s research work. The documents demonstrate how pressure from NOAA led university officials to cut Steiner’s funding: federal officials wrote that they “had an issue with Steiner” and that his environmental advocacy could “cause problems nationally” for the agency. PEER called this one of the first instances where a university and federal agency admitted to removing a faculty member’s funding because of their environmental positions.
Steiner filed multiple internal grievance claims which were all rejected by the university, and in February 2010, Dr. Steiner resigned from the university faculty on principle. Soon after, he was told by a friend who had been in a meeting with university officials that oil executives had met with university officials, telling them point blank that as long as Steiner continued to oppose the oil industry, the university would not get a dime of its money. The University of Alaska, like many public institutions in Alaska, is funded largely by oil revenues.
Like Monnett, Steiner says his experience taught him the limits to academic and scientific freedom in a place like Alaska. “It is a systemic problem far beyond BOEMRE,” he explains. “It’s in all the agencies, the universities. It’s state and federal and a broad systemic problem in Alaska.
“[TheuUniversity] felt I was being too much of an advocate for marine conservation which is in contradiction to their professed goal of being in favor of academic freedom.”
And indeed, the brazen nature of the university’s statements on Steiner’s case is deeply shocking. In the recommendation to cut Steiner’s funding, Dean Wiesenburg of the University of Alaska noted that Steiner “regularly takes strong public positions on issues of public debate.” Steiner, he said, “has chosen to be a maverick and work independently.”
To Steiner, what this means is clear. “There is an unwritten orthodoxy in Alaska,” he explains, “that dissenting opinions regarding unsustainable economic and political paradigms here need to be suppressed and silenced. Everybody knows that. There’s a very strong political dynamic where agencies and public institutions like the university are captured by the oil industry because it pays 95% of the state budget. Federal agencies bend over backwards for the oil industry and tend to marginalize voices that threaten that dynamic. If you criticize oil, you will have hell to pay.”
“There aren’t very many dissenters. The whole point of making an example of me and Charles [Monnett] was to suppress people from doing that in the future. People have learned that if they want to keep their job and their pay check, and their pension and their benefits, they need to keep their head down.”
A Handy Guide to Scientific Suppression
The cases of Charles Monnett and Rick Steiner have dire implications for how we view Shell’s offshore drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea this summer, and the lengths to which they went to acquire the permits. Much of this can only be guessed at. Steiner talks about the prevailing culture where federal agencies and universities begin to eliminate scientists who do not conform to the pro-oil agenda by not granting promotions or incentive awards, or giving them inadequate annual performance reviews. Another tactic, he says, is overwhelming staff scientists with trivial tasks, pulling them off projects for which they are qualified.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, an organization that seeks to protect scientist whistleblowers, can add to this list. “The range of things we see,” he says, “range from attempts to terminate, suspend, crippling internal investigations. In one case involving a lab director, the funding for his graduate students was jeopardized so he lost a lot of his research capacity. Preventing publications has no limits—in one case, a scientist was raising issues and her email privileges were taken away. We were left scratching our heads wondering how that could have happened.”
One possible remedy is scientific integrity policies that protect whistleblowers, but as Ruch explains, they are far from satisfactory. “Industry puts pressure on government agencies, and government agencies are the instrument of retaliation,” he explains. “For the most part, scientists have few legal protections. These scientists are not covered by whistleblower laws, because they’re not disclosing violations of law, fraud, or abuse. They’re disclosing suppression of research, or watering down of methodologies or the omission of key findings.”
“The law generally treats these as a matter of opinion and in these cases, the chain of command generally wins over the staff scientist.”
In his experience, Ruch says “scientific integrity policies operate within the Department of the Interior—those were weakened in December to make it even more difficult to sustain a complaint. Up until that time, there had been 2 instances out of 14 where the scientist involved faced multiple suspensions and the responsible managers escaped punishment altogether. It’s difficult to advise scientists in good conscience to file complaints under their own name because they’re unlikely to resolve in anything good.”
Early in 2009, Obama released a presidential directive to develop policies that restore scientific integrity to federal actions, including providing federal scientists better whistleblower protections. At the time, this was hailed as a huge leap in the right direction.
Ruch feels not much has changed. “The agencies in the Interior have largely ignored the presidential directive,” he explains. “Some policies claim protections but have no mechanisms by which that protection is implemented, which makes it empty protection.”
Environmental groups argue that this scientific suppression, and overlooking the enormous environmental risks, has been key to the Obama administration’s approval of Shell’s permits this year. Much of the information detailing the safety and reliability of Shell’s operations has not been released to the public, despite multiple FOIA requests by groups like Greenpeace and PEER. A recent FOIA request by PEER, directed at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), seeks to release information on how Shell’s plans for certified by third-party observers, as well as information on the deployment of capping stack and containment domes in the event of an oil spill. BSEE has not responded. PEER has now filed a lawsuit in a federal district court to bring these details to light.
As President Obama continues his trip in Alaska to highlight the dangers of climate change amid overwhelming opposition from environmental and indigenous groups, it begs big questions about the administration’s overarching legacy with federal scientists and the oil industry. Ruch feels strongly about this: “In terms of the actions inside these agencies, there has been no discernible difference between those under George Bush, who was an oil man, and Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor who when his own Commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill met with him, one of the very first questions he asked was about Arctic drilling.”
“It has been clear that Arctic drilling is part of the ‘all-the-above’ energy strategy and the same sort of suppression and the same suite of issues have never really been analyzed.”
For an administration pretending to conduct a dramatic push toward mitigating climate change, that is a shameful record.