Smears on integrity of Polar wildlife scientist a prelude to Arctic Oil Drilling

A misconduct complaint has been filed against the US Interior Department on behalf of an Arctic scientist who has been under investigation since the start of the year. The scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, PhD, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, has not been told why he is under investigation or what the allegations are against him, although a record of interview from February this year seemed to question his scientific integrity by focussing on a 2006 scientific paper co-written with Jeffrey Gleason - Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea.

Related: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - Arctic Scientist protests witch hunt on polar bear paper

Dr. Charles Monnett was suspended on full pay from all duties on 18th July and forbidden from communicating with co-workers, thus disrupting a large portfolio of ongoing scientific research. He coordinates a significant portion of all BOEMRE extramural research and a majority of BOEMRE research on Arctic wildlife and ecology amounting to $50 million worth of studies.

The investigation that started earlier this year seized Monnett's hard drive, emails, papers and notebooks disrupting his work. The interview conducted on February 23 was done by criminal investigators with no scientific training or background, who had little grasp of the scientific issues they were investigating. Investigator Eric May told Monnett: "our office received some allegations pertaining to scientif- – potential scientific misconduct perpetrated by you and your, uh, coworker, Mr. Gleason, okay? So that's what the scope of this interview is going to be is your participation in the bowhead – the BWASP program?"

Yet on Friday July 29 BOEMRE spokesperson Melissa Schartz in an email to the Alaska Despatch publicly denied the investigation was in regard to Monnett's scientific integrity, or the 2006 polar bear paper but refused to disclose the allegations against Monnett or the reason for his full suspension from all duties: "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." she said.

The misconduct complaint was lodged on Thursday July 28 against the Interior Department by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “Ever since this paper was published, Dr. Monnett has been subjected to escalating official harassment, culminating in his recent virtual house arrest,” stated Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the huge economic stakes for oil companies seeking to open Arctic waters in suppressing 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.”

The complaint seeks Monnett’s reinstatement and a public apology from the agency and inspector general and to have the investigation dropped or to have the charges specified and the matter carried out quickly and fairly, as the Obama Government policy states.

BOEMRE was created in 2010 after a reorganization of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service in the wake of the Gulf of Mexicoil spill where it had been accused of being too close to oil and gas industry companies. It is responsible for overseeing leasing and development of offshore drilling.

The Interior Department, the parent agency for BOEMRE, adopted its first ever scientific integrity policies at the start of 2011 designed to protect scientists from political interference. The PEER complaint charges that officials within the Department of Interior, Office of Inspector General and BOEMRE 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,” added Ruch, pointing to heightened pressure on Alaska BOEMRE 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.”

The 2006 scientific article by Monnett and Gleason - Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea - was influential in raising the protection of Polar bears to vulnerable status and noting the likely impact of climate change and reduction in the Arctic ice pack on Polar Bears. The paper had undergone internal peer review in the Minerals Management Service, management review and outside blind peer review coordinated by editors of the Journal where it was published, Polar Biology.

Subsequent research shows that female polar bears are swimming longer distance according to a six year study - Long-distance swimming events by adult female polar bears in the southern Beaufort and Chukchi seas - conducted by the US Geological Survey and World Wildlife Fund which used GPS collars deployed on adult female polar bears. "Climate change is pulling the sea ice out from under polar bears' feet, forcing some to swim longer distances to find food and habitat," said Geoff York, WWF Polar Bear Expert who is an author of the study. "This research is the first analysis to identify a significant multi-year trend of increased long-distance swimming by polar bears. Prior research had only reported on single incidents," said York in a WWF media release on July 19, 2011.

The aspertions cast on the integrity of a key environmental scientist has come at an important stage for the oil industry. On March 31st, 2010, President Obama announced a broad offshore drilling plan could permanently alter much of America’s coastline and threaten economy of coastal communities. Shell Oil plans to commence drilling in the open water season of 2012 in the Chukchi Sea using the drillship Noble Discoverer and in the Beaufort Sea using the floating drilling platform the Kulluk according to Petroleum News reported in May. The House of Representatives passed a bill in June that would accelerate offshore drilling in the Arctic by curtailing environmental reviews of coastal oil exploration projects.

The US Coast Guard is ill-equipped to deal with a major oil catastrophe according to Coast Guard officials reported by AFP in February 2011.

A coalition of conservation groups, including Audubon Alaska, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and Pew Environment Group submitted in March comments on BOEMRE plans on 2012 to 2017 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. "government agencies—especially BOEMRE— should engage in more thorough preparation before deciding whether, when, where, and under what conditions to permit additional oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean." said the submission (PDF).

“There is a lot at stake. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast are home to species found nowhere else in the United States, as well as to millions of migratory birds. In addition, this unique ecosystem is central to the diet and culture of Indigenous communities who have practiced a subsistence way of life for thousands of years." said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic Program in a media release on June 23, 2011. "The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, leading to a dramatic loss of summer sea ice and attracting significant interest in oil and gas drilling. To protect this already stressed ecosystem, a comprehensive research and monitoring plan needs to be in place before expanding drilling in U.S. Arctic waters."

Monnett alledges The Bowhead whale survey has always been political to assuage the native community that BOEMRE is looking after their interests in whale conservation while managing the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the region. "they don't want any impediment to, um, you know, what they view as their mission, which is to, uh, you know, drill wells up there, I mean, and, you know, put areas into production. The bowhead whale is extremely political, and the Native community is very powerful, and they're very concerned about, uh, you know, any impacts that we might have on the whale. So what MMS has done has created, um, the perception that we're monitoring this, and we're finding negative results all the time, when I would argue we're not monitoring at all. We're just doing this study."

Turnover of scientific and technical staff in BOEMRE is up to 50 per cent. "They basically blew everybody out of here that showed any, uh, desire to be a conscientious scientist. Jeff Gleason was one of those." Monnett told Inspector General Investigators in February 2011.

For the 2005 report of the Bowhead whale survey Monnett refused to put his name on the report claiming the analysis was incorrect. "I asked for time to do the analysis right, which was going to be a bigger deal. And I was, uh, I was threatened; I was given deadlines; eventually, I was, uh, I was given a disciplinary action and required to produce this thing in a certain amount of time on their timetable, at which point I did, and I took my name off it." he told investigators.

The harassment of Monnett also ignores a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office which directly addressed issues with scientific restraints by the Alaska Office of then Minerals Mining Service (MMS).

Here is an excerpt of what Dr Monnett said in the record of interview with criminal investigators from the Inspector General's office in February 2011 about the management culture of the BOEMRE:

 

    CHARLES MONNETT: – we – listen, we, we work for an agency that is, especially then, extremely hostile to the concept of climate change, that's hostile to the idea that there's any effects of anything we do on anything. And we could only write this paper by being extremely conservative, with a lot of caveats. It's the only way we could publish it. Because you saw those names on there. They're all looking at it, you know, wanting to see whether we've said anything at all.

    I think one of the things in there that, uh, that I had to change in an early stage was we said that if, um, this continues, that it's something that should be, uh, considered by MMS analysts or something like that, something specific that way. Well, of course, that went out right away because, you know, we're not going to tell the analysts what to do here.

    Um, the reason that I'm not on that other paper, the Gleason-Rhode one, is not because I didn't do the work. Jeff and I developed that paper together, but we abandoned it when he was here. And when he left here, then he picked it back up, and he found another author. And I just said, “Jeff, publish it without me. If we try to publish it with me, it's not going to get out the door here. It'll never get permission.”

    And as a COR, I conceive of, I design studies, I fund them, and in some cases, I've provided, you know, extensive data and things from my own work. And I tell every one of my PIs that I will not share authorship on anything. And it's common for people in my position to, you know, to have their name on a paper in some – usually, you know, like a lab, like a lab manager or something, the name is kind of stuck out on the end. But I've told them that my name is not going to go anything, because it will make it impossible to publish the paper because of the attitudes here and the review we go to, go through.

    And that's what you guys ought to be thinking about is that, and why somebody is, is asking these silly questions, why they're trying to, uh, make me look bad and undermine this simple paper that's an obvious paper, uh, that hasn't been subject to any scientific criticism up to this point. And it's been out there for a while.

    But why are people gunning for me constantly? Why is it that I'm telling you and Jeff probably told you that we can't do science here? Why did I outsource this? You know, why do you think I outsourced it? It's because I couldn't do it here anymore. They wouldn't let me do the right kind of analysis here that had some potential to demonstrate negative effects from what we manage as an agency.

    This study was done for 20-some years, and it was permitted to go forward because it never made a ripple in anything, because it was designed in a way that it had almost no potential to identify any sort of a problem. And part of that has to do with the analysis, and part of it just has to do with the, the questions that were asked.

    And when I started the project, I had to make a basic decision. Am I going to try to ensure that this study goes forward forever and that we keep doing it the way we are, or am I going to try to do some science in here and get some of this stuff out? And I chose the latter, which led almost immediately to me having to outsource the study, and so it's at the National Marine Mammal Lab, because they're a trust agency, they have responsibility for these, these resources, they give a damn. And they're scientists, and if they find something in there, they'll, they'll publish it, regardless of what my management thinks.

    And my management have been trying to kill this study for a while, ever since really the polar bear thing came out. That was when they realized that it's dangerous to take data like this, because if there are changes and, you know, God forbid something that has anything to do with the climate change debate. So I, I thought they'd softened.

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Update August 1, 2011: The Guardian has published the transcript of interview with Jeffrey Gleason conducted on January 20, 2011.

The concluding lines outline and summarise what was being investigated - the 2006 paper Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea and it's influence on the global warming debate.

JEFFREY GLEASON: Okay. And if I might ask, "investigating"?
ERIC MAY: The validity of the paper and the photos.

This investigation so far appears to amount to an ideological driven witchhunt against the scientific process.

 

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