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Environmentalists demand answers about polar bear biologist's suspension

Jill Burke

Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity have suspicions that the suspension of a respected government scientist could have to do with a pro-oil-drilling stance by federal regulators.

The environmental groups have launched a "full inquiry" into the suspension of Dr. Charles Monnett following the announcement this week that the federal agency Monnett works for -- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement -- had given oil company Shell Offshore, Inc., preliminary approval for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean next summer.

"We are gravely concerned by the allegations of political interference with Dr. Monnett's work and other scientific research at BOEMRE," the groups wrote Thursday in a joint letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The groups are using the Freedom of Information Act to look into whether any correspondence exists between BOEMRE and Shell regarding Monnett or his research.

People close to Monnett had believed the suspension related to a 2006 study Monnett coauthored in which he noted observing four polar bears that he and a colleague theorized had drowned. The observation became an iconic symbol for the perils of a swiftly changing Arctic environment.

Soon after, efforts intensified to protect the bears and their habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

Monnett is under investigation by the Inspector General into what has thus far only publicly been described as "integrity issues." Amid speculation that it was Monnett's scientific work that had come under scrutiny, BOEMRE attempted to clarify the vague reasons for the inquiry by stating only that it had "nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting."

Yet a July 29 letter sent to Monnett by the Office of the Inspector General shows Monnett's work in 2006 continues to be something they are interested in talking to him about, advising him that an upcoming interview with agents "may include follow-up questions to your previous interview with the OIG regarding the integrity and representations or your official work."

And, the same letter outlines the investigation relating to Monnett's conduct as an employee of BOEMRE in greater detail. "We intend to discuss actions taken in your official capacity as a biologist and any collateral duties involving contracts as an official of the U.S. Government. These actions include procurement of a sole source, cost-reimbursbable contract with the University of Alberta to conduct a study titled "Populations and Sources of the Recruitment in Polar Bears," the letter states, explaining to Monnett what to expect during an interview scheduled to take place Aug. 9.

Undoubtedly worrisome for Monnett, the OIG's office also notes that Monnett's case -- whatever it may be -- had been evaluated by the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, but that attorneys there had declined to take action, leaving the current inquiry to remain "administrative in nature."

In pursuing answers about the rationale for Monnett's fall into disfavor, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity question whether problems that plagued the earlier incarnation or BOEMRE -- the Minerals Management Service, rebranded under appearances of integrity lapses and mismanagement -- continue to linger, despite Obama-era mandates designed to insulate scientists and the work they do from political pressures.

"This incident indicates that the agency remains rife with problems and seems determined to restrict scientists from engaging in or disseminating research that provides critical information on the potential impacts of oil drilling in a rapidly changing Arctic," Kert Davies with Greenpeace and Kassie Siegel with CBD wrote in their joint letter to Salazar.

Their push for answers follows a formal complaint filed earlier this month against BOEMRE by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Monnett's behalf.

Content Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com