Dr. Charles Monnett Investigation Ends Strangely. It May Be Shell Oil’s Only Arctic Victory for 2012 – Updated
Late last week, Dr. Charles Monnett, one of most highly regarded scientists in Alaska, was informed by Walter D. Cruikshank, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, that the 16-month long investigation into his scientific integrity has been concluded. Though there was no adverse finding on Monnett’s integrity, he received a written reprimand regarding emails he had passed on to an Alaska tribal agency, and to an environmental activist. The emails ended up playing an important part in court proceedings which resulted in Shell Oil having to delay their plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean from 2008 to 2012. This has cost Shell several hundred million, if not more.
There was nothing in the reprimand critical of Monnett’s handling of information having to do with the 2004 sighting of dead Polar Bears in the Chukchi Sea, which became iconic through Al Gore’s use of the imagery in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
The organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has been representing Dr. Monnett from the beginning of the investigation. They issued a press release on his reprimand on Friday:
DROWNED POLAR BEAR PROBE CLOSES WITH A WHIMPER — Unrelated Disclosures from 2007 and 2008 Dredged Up in Questionable Reprimand
Washington, DC — No charges will be brought against the federal scientist regarding his high-profile research on polar bears, despite a two-and-a-half year investigation, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, he has received a letter of reprimand for allegedly improper disclosures back in 2007 and 2008 which helped reveal that Bush administration Arctic offshore drilling reviews illegally suppressed adverse environmental consequences.
Up until July 2011, Dr. Charles Monnett had directed a multi-million dollar portfolio constituting a majority of research on Arctic wildlife and ecology conducted for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). He was temporarily suspended due to an Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation into a polar bear research contract managed by Dr. Monnett. The OIG probe, which began in March 2010, also centered on a 2004 paper authored by Dr. Monnett in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology concerning observations of drowned polar bears following a storm.
The final IG report, delivered to BOEM three months ago, is slated for imminent release. On Friday, September 27, 2012, BOEM informed Dr. Monnett that no action would be taken against him based on “findings made by the OIG in its report regarding your conduct” with the exception of a series of “improper disclosures of internal, deliberative government documents to a non-governmental entity” back in 2007 and 2008. These disclosures had nothing to do with polar bear research but they embarrassed the agency and were, according to the letter of reprimand, “cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in making decisions to vacate BOEM’s approval of the Shell exploration plan” for Arctic waters.
PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, who – along with me and a few others – has characterized the proceedings against Dr. Monnett as a “witch hunt,” stated Friday:
We are pleased this misguided witch hunt is finally stumbling to a conclusion. We will push to learn how this abusive probe got started and why it was sustained. We expect Dr. Monnett to return to work as a scientist.
We are amazed that Dr. Monnett would be reproved for revealing that his agency was wrongfully withholding information. For his actions, Chuck Monnett deserves a citation, not a reprimand. However, if after years of investigation, these stale, stilted charges are the only things these jokers could dig up, Dr. Monnett must be an exemplary public servant.
The reprimand refers to five occasions when Dr. Monnett forwarded emails pertaining to the ongoing Minerals Management Service study on Shell Oil’s application to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The emails spanned the period between February, 2007 and January, 2008. The BOEM deputy director states in the letter:
These emails, in part, were cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court in making decisions to vacate BOEM’s (he means its predecessor, MMS) approval of the Shell exploration plan.
Essentially, Monnett is being reprimanded for providing truthful information that shut down an operation that could have caused immeasurable harm to the Arctic environment.
The environmental scientist to whom Monnett sent some of the emails was Prof. Rick Steiner, who has been and still is a long-term thorn in Shell’s side. His criticism of Shell Oil cost his University of Alaska Sea Grant program its funding last year. He resigned in disgust. Not a good thing for Shell, though. Steiner is now devoting more energy than ever to keeping an eye on the company, whose environmental record around the planet is one of the most irresponsible in human history. Earlier in September, Steiner was interviewed about his discovery, along with PEER, of the inadequacy of the current testing of the capping stack system Shell had hoped to deploy on their hapless, bad luck barge, the Arctic Challenger:
[H]oping for the best when it comes to Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling plans, because the company clearly is not prepared for the worst, at least when it comes to testing critical equipment needed to prevent massive blowouts like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
After dragging it’s feet for a while, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement finally released all the information it had on last summer’s testing of a well-head capping stack system.
All the information on that test was included on less than a single page of typed text.
“I was shocked,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor who requested the testing report under the Freedom of Information Act. “I was expecting 50 or 70 pages … with pressure tests, detailed engineering info, graphs … it’s a critical piece of equipment in a blow-out,” said Steiner, an oil spill expert and board member of an environmental watchdog group.
The idea is to lower the capping stack system over a busted well head, a tricky and delicate task in the best of conditions and potentially a significant challenge in the sometimes extreme Arctic Ocean conditions.
Yet Shell and the BSSE apparently were able to complete the testing in a single day.
“To say that these tests were rigorous or comprehensive is certainly a stretch,” Steiner said. “A simple emissions test report for my car is far more rigorous than what BSEE has produced for Shell’s Arctic capping stack. From this, we still don’t know that this critical piece of equipment will work if needed.”
At best, the tests were only partial and cursory and didn’t include any independent analyis of the results, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. which obtained the federal testing data.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how Alaska media is covering the reprimand of Dr. Charles Monnett. Perhaps most troubling so far has been the coverage at The Alaska Dispatch, owned by the wife of Carlyle group co-founder, David Rubenstein. Their headline on the reprimand reads:
INVESTIGATORS: SCIENTIST BEHIND ‘DROWNING POLAR BEARS’ REPORT COMMITTED WRONG-DOING
or, at least it did, before they changed it to:
Renowned Alaska scientist reprimanded by federal investigators
which is more appropriate for what the reprimand actually says. The author of the Alaska Dispatch article on Monnett’s reprimand claims to have seen the official report from the Inspector General’s Office of the Interior Department. I haven’t been able to find it yet. The IG’s office does not list the report, and they’re gone for the weekend. Jill Burke, in her Dispatch article, writes:
The results of the IG’s investigation, published Friday, suggest that Monnett and Gleason were sloppy with their polar bear data and that Monnett was secretly padding the war chest of anti-oil activists with confidential internal government emails pertaining to drilling in the Arctic by Royal Dutch Shell, an oil giant that, after years of delays, now has a ship hovering over a site in the Beaufort, poised to sink its drill. Those emails would turn up in a court case that effectively stopped Shell’s drilling plans in 2007 and 2008 — a problem for Monnett’s employer since the Minerals Management Service, the predecessor to BOEM, had been the government agency to approve Shell’s drilling plan.
Burke goes on to claim:
It was a volatile political and legal climate, and Monnett’s plight as a scientist under scrutiny gave fodder to many conspiracy theories. Global warming deniers used it as evidence that climate change was a false theory put forward by corrupt scientists using junk science to bolster their cause. Others saw it as gross overreach of government into the workplace freedoms scientists are supposed to be able to enjoy in the pursuit of truth, free from political pressure. And still others saw the investigation into Monnett as proof that oil industry cronies would spare no cost to destroy the credibility of a scientist whose work had become an obstacle to exploiting petroleum reserves beneath the ocean.
Put me into the second and third categories, Jill – just not in such a pejorative way. Burke’s article is quite good, though, overall. Here’s the section about what the IG report supposedly says about Monnett and Dr. Jeffrey Gleason’s peer-reviewed paper on Polar bear drowning mortality:
When the IG suggested during its investigation that Monnett’s underestimation of potential deaths may have actually helped the NGO raise money, Monnett rejected the allegation, and instead said he was looking for the opposite effect. “The reason we understated it is because we wanted to avoid it,” Monnett told investigators, “it” being the report’s use as a lucrative tool for NGOs to raise cash. “I am not a climate change campaigner.”
The IG also uncovered dissent within MMS over whether Monnett and Gleason should have ever been allowed to let the article go to print. Some criticized the article’s use a of single year’s observations to foreshadow a trend. And others said it was improper to suggest climate change and longer swims were partly to blame for the drowned bears, when the real culprit was a fast-moving, tumultuous storm.
“I don’t think it would have changed anything,” Monnett told investigators when asked whether more focus on the storm would have devalued their scientific conclusions. “Because it is clear. Everybody knows the reason the storms are there is related to the retraction of the sea ice. And most people would say that it is related to climate change.”
Indeed, that is the case. And the storms are only going to get bigger, as more water is clear through the late summer and into mid-autumn.
Although Burke’s article seems to imply Dr. Monnett, and perhaps Dr. Gleason did something wrong, there hasn’t been much other coverage in the Alaska press of what should be considered a major story. The Anchorage Daily News, once one of the outstanding newspapers in the USA, hasn’t yet covered it. Alaska Public Radio Network, played a small, 30-second report on the reprimand.
There seems to be more interest in the case’s culmination outside of Alaska than here. The Guardian reported on it Friday, with a headline quite different from what the Dispatch initially carried – “U.S.Polar Near Researcher Cleared of Misconduct“: (excerpts in snips)
The Obama administration has wound up its controversial investigation of a government polar bear researcher without finding any evidence of scientific wrongdoing, campaign groups said late Friday.
The investigation was launched in March 2010 just as Obama announced he would open up the Arctic to offshore drilling and expand oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.
The investigators began their inquiries by examining allegations that Monnett and another scientist had used false data in an article on drowned polar bears.
Some of the material disclosed by Monnett was later used in court to force the interior department to revoke its approval of Shell’s drilling plan, the letter said.
Arctic researchers and environmental campaigns saw the investigation of Monnett as an attempt to discredit or sideline government scientists – and so clear the way for Shell and other oil companies seeking approval to begin drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Rebecca Noblin, who heads the Arctic programme for the Centre for Biological Diversity agreed. “After years of dredging through Dr Monnett’s files looking for damning evidence against the scientist, all the inspector general could come up with is that Dr Monnett disclosed documents that should have been public in the first place,” she said in an email. “If there were more people like Dr Monnett in BOEM, maybe we’d see more drilling decisions based on science rather than politics.”
I doubt it, but we can hope.
Meanwhile, Shell is trying to get both of their offshore rigs as close to the oil basins in the Chukchi and Beaufort as possible, before they have to wrap up for the season:
[A]s the roughly four-month open water season wound down, Shell announced last week it would limit drilling to “top-hole” work, the shallow but time-consuming preparation for an offshore well. The final straw for the decision: damage during testing Sept. 15 to an undersea containment dome, part of a spill response system that Shell put in place to reassure federal regulators that Arctic offshore drilling could be done safely.
That report by Dan Joling is inaccurate, as Shell has NO SYSTEM in place in the Arctic to deal effectively with any mishap that occurs.
All with the approval of the Obama administration.
Update: Monday, 8:21 PDT: PEER has now provided a link to the DOI IG’s report, and issued a statement on it early this morning. It seems to make this case’s conclusion even more strange. I’m reprinting a fair amount of it, but have bolded important parts for more brevity on important points:
KAFKAESQUE IG POLAR BEAR REPORT AT ODDS WITH FACTS — Probe Commissioned to Plug Leaks and Root out Dissent on Arctic Offshore Drilling
Washington, DC — A controversial investigation into polar bear research has ended but its main findings and recommendations have been rejected by the federal agency to which it was submitted, according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The investigation grew out of an attempt to stop releases of internal information that undermined plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin oil and gas operations in Arctic waters.
The Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) “Investigative Report” was issued late on Friday, September 28th, hours after many news deadlines, a practice known as “putting out the trash.” The report was submitted more than three months ago to the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM), which employs the scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, who was the probe’s principal subject. The investigation began in March 2010 when “a career U.S. Department of Interior employee” anonymously alleged that Dr. Monnett had engaged in scientific misconduct to further an environmental agenda.
Significantly, the main allegations about fabricated data and falsified photographs of drowned polar bears proved to be utterly untrue. Apparently undeterred by the unreliability of its informant, the IG enlarged the investigation to veer in many directions including international research.
“This report reads like Nixon’s infamous Plumbers’ Unit merged with the Keystone Kops,” remarked PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, whose organization is providing legal representation for Dr. Monnett. “The weirdest aspect was the IG’s thoroughly misguided attempt to connect marine mammal research to a dark environmental conspiracy, including gossip about Al Gore.”
The report addresses three very different topics but in each omitted any countervailing facts:
- Peer review journal article on observations of drowned polar bears. Despite quibbling about how data were recorded, there is ample evidence the drowned bears were sighted (the IG suggests that, if anything, the number of “floaters” was underestimated – which undercuts its confusing, turgid critique of the paper). The report claims Dr. Monnett used an incomplete data set but fails to find a more complete set. BOEM rejected any conclusion that whatever the IG found constituted “scientific misconduct.” The article has never been publicly questioned by scientists;
- Procurement irregularities involving a University of Alberta research project on polar bears. The IG report reflects that procurement officers could not even agree among themselves what the rules were. The IG instead relies on procurement officers who self-protectively blamed scientists, not themselves, for any infractions. Finally, BOEM rejected that IG findings merited any action against scientists. In fact, BOEM says it has now reformed procurement practices to address uncertainties although it has not explained just what those reforms are; and
- Improper disclosures. Last Friday, Dr. Monnett received a letter of reprimand, the lowest level of discipline, for a series of five emails allegedly transmitted to outside individuals in 2007 and 2008. Ironically, the IG details how this was known back in 2008 but the agency did nothing since high-level review “determined that there was no clear course of disciplinary action.” It is unclear why there is a clear course for disciplinary action, however mild, four years later.
image: Dr. Charles Monnett’s 2004 picture of a dead Polar bear in the Arctic