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Polar bear scientist probe finds problems in offshore oil agency

Jill Burke

The arduous scrutiny directed at federal Arctic wildlife biologist Dr. Charles Monnett over the past few years came down to little more than a reprimand. But the fallout rippled through the nation's offshore oil agency.

A letter obtained by Alaska Dispatch under the Freedom of Information Act shows why Monnett's employer, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), rejected two of three findings made by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). It took the two agencies nearly six months to release a handful of pages related to a request for information about the investigations of Monnett and his colleague zoologist Dr. Jeffrey Gleason. Most of what was eventually produced had already been widely disseminated last fall.

But a three-page letter, a response by the bureau to inspector general that addresses the agency's initial findings, documents in greater detail why the bureau declined to throw the book at its scientist.

Culture of bad practices 

Brought to light is a self-admitted culture within the Alaska Region of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), BOEM's predecessor agency, of bad contracting practices. The problem was apparently more widespread than the one scientist -- Monnett -- the inspector general singled out for procurement violations. So the bureau was unwilling to come down on Monnett when others in the office had done the same thing.

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General sent its agents to investigate whether Monnett inflated findings related to global warming. Along the way, the agents uncovered what they thought were other acts of misconduct -- dissemination of sensitive government documents to outside parties and inappropriately handing out a sole-source contract to a Canadian polar bear researcher.

In the end, Monnett received a written reprimand for sharing emails related to oil exploration in Arctic waters, including discussion about Royal Dutch Shell's plans in the Beaufort Sea and BP's proposed Liberty oil development, including how the projects’ environmental impacts might influence the Endangered Species Act, as well as fish and polar bears. The emails were sent to outside parties before MMS made final decisions and before a North Slope community filed a lawsuit against the service to block its approval of Shell's plans. The emails made their way into the court case, and ultimately the agency's approval was overturned.

An undercurrent of the investigation was whether Monnett and Gleason had committed scientific misconduct by publishing a paper that discussed their observation of drowned polar bears in Alaska's Arctic. The 2006 article published in the journal Polar Biology documented four dead polar bears in the Arctic Ocean that the scientists saw while conducting overflights in 2004 for a bowhead whale study. In the article, they noted the deaths could have been due to loss of sea ice and a large storm. Inspector General agents found Gleason and Monnett under-represented their observations and that they didn't have a quality dataset to pull from to begin with.

Interest in polar bears intensifies 

The inquiry by the Inspector General came just as the offshore hunt for oil in U.S. Arctic waters and public awareness of the plight of polar bears intensified. Pro- and anti-oil factions worked to gain sympathy at both the local and national levels.

When Monnett and Gleason discovered dead polar bears floating in the Beaufort Sea in 2004, they realized they were on to something significant, and they worked swiftly to become the first in the scientific community to publish their findings two years later. By 2008, the polar bear was officially listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, largely based on projected survival rates derived from forecasts about the toll that climate change -- including less sea ice and more open water swims -- would have on the bears.

In a letter to the acting Inspector General dated Sept. 27, 2012, bureau director Tommy Beaudreau explained that the published polar bear manuscript is a “note” -- a unique observation that may suggest an avenue for future research, but which cannot be reproduced, therefore limiting its scientific value. The fact that the journal was peer-evaluated meant other scientists felt Monnett’s and Gleason's work was worth publishing. And, the Inspector General admitted the paper had not impacted the still-to-come 2008 decision to list polar bears as “threatened.”

For these reasons, the bureau refuted that any scientific misconduct had occurred. The agency also acknowledged that violations of procurement policy, if they occurred, were not limited to Monnett.

A senior contracting officer was aware of Monnett's handling of the contract and had approved the scientist’s actions. This same person acknowledged during the investigation that with sole-source contracts, you were able to be “looser in how you interact” than in competitive situations. Because MMS staff at the time was working with what is described as “little structure, policy, no procedures” regarding its procurement of contracts, the bureau refused to single out Monnett for punishment when the practices of the entire Alaska Region needed reform.

Since then, “intense focus” and “substantial reform” has taken place to clean up the way contracts are handled, Beaudreau told the Inspector General. The overhaul has included institutional changes, new leadership, and comprehensive training programs. “BOEM continues to strive for excellence and ongoing improvement in its procurement practices,” he wrote.

Lax oversight

It's an ongoing chapter in the agency's attempt to clean up its reputation in the wake of national scandals and criticism of the Alaska region. It began with BP's oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which raised questions about whether MMS had been too lax in its industry oversight. Claims that fedeal officials had unethically close relationships with oil company executives followed.

Making things worse, not long after the spill began, Alaska's MMS office held a staff meeting, and someone brought a cake decorated with the famous line by former Gov. Sarah Palin, “Drill Baby Drill.” It made national news and anti-drilling interests demanded that agency head John Goll be shown the door.

Within months, more trouble erupted. The General Accounting Office announced it had found serious problems in the way the Alaska MMS office authorized permits. The problems included complaints from government scientists who said their work had been dismissed to make way for industry-sought approvals.

As it turns out, BP's Liberty project in the Beaufort Sea has languished. And Shell's inaugural drilling attempt in 2013 was fraught with mishaps, forcing it into hibernation for at least a year until it can repair equipment that was damaged or failed in the 2012 drilling season.

Leading up to his September reprimand, Monnett had been banished from the environmental division of the bureau and reassigned as an analyst. But with the final decision in, he was allowed to return to his old job, according to Monnett's attorney Jeffrey Ruch. How much of that work awaited him was unclear, as much of it has been parceled out to other staff, Ruch said.

Agency has huge Alaska reach 

Meanwhile, work at the bureau under the “overhauled” Alaska region continues in three areas: leasing, resource evaluation and environmental stewardship.

Studies of marine life in the Arctic are ongoing, including monitoring of bowhead whale migratory patterns and habitat, polar bear populations and the characteristics of bears summering onshore. There’s also research on fish, snow crab, seals and walrus under way. Many studies incorporate assessments of these species in lease and potential drilling areas.

The agency “oversees more than 1 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf and more than 6,000 miles of coastline -- more coastline than in the rest of the United States combined,” according the Alaska OCS Region website, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, Bering Sea, Cook Inlet, and the Gulf of Alaska.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com