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Alaska polar bear researcher reprimanded, allowed to return to work

Jill Burke
Polar bears congregate at the carcass of a bowhead whale on the beach in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Stranded polar bears on Cross Island outside Prudhoe Bay.
Will Rose and Kajsa Sjölander/ 70°ill
Polar bears on Barter Island in ANWR.
Courtesy Alan & Elaine Wilson
A stranded female polar bear and mother of two cubs wait for the sea ice to return to be able to hunt.
Will Rose and Kajsa Sjölander/ 70°
A polar bear cub waits for the sea ice to return. The US Geological Survey is now genotyping from archive samples, creating a genetic ID of every bear captured over the past 20 years.
Will Rose and Kajsa Sjölander/ 70°
A polar bear.
Photo courtesy USGS
Polar bears on the Arctic Ocean sea ice in September, 2008.
Photo by Jessica K. Robertson, U.S. Geological Survey
A dead bear in the Beaufort Sea photographed on September 14, 2004. It was observed by Dr. Charles Monnett and his colleague, Jeff Gleason, during an aerial survey.
Minerals Management Service photo
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic offshore exploratory project (front view)
Shell photo
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
10 6 kulluk shell offshore rig
Shell Alaska photo

A government scientist who drew international attention after publishing a report about drowning polar bears in Alaska's Arctic didn't always do everything by the book, according to the results of a federal investigative report released Friday. And yet on the very day the report was made public, wildlife biologist Dr. Charles Monnett was given the all-clear to return to his job at the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management. Throughout the ordeal, Monnett has suffered suspension, reinstatement -- and until now -- reassignment to a hands-off role as an analyst.

The inquiry by the Office of the Inspector General for the Interior Department into Monnett and ecologist Dr. Jeffrey Gleason, both BOEM scientists at the time, came just as the offshore hunt for oil in U.S. Arctic waters and public awareness of the plight of polar bears were intensifying. Pro- and anti-oil factions were working hard to gain sympathy and an advantage at the local and national level. When Monnett and Gleason discovered dead polar bears floating in the Beaufort Sea in 2004, they realized they were on to something significant, and worked swiftly to become first in the scientific community to publish their findings just 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 -- less polar sea ice and more open water swims -- would have on the bears.

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. 

The report also hammered Monnett for having too close a relationship with a government subcontractor. Monnett, who in his official capacity would go on to approve the technical merits of a Canadian polar bear study to be funded by his agency, had actually helped an associate from the University of Alberta shape the offer before the U.S. government made public its proposal.

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.

Although the IG report is finally out, the full truth may never be known. 

What is known is that Monnett has survived the inquest with the administrative equivalent of a slap on the hand, and although the IG submitted evidence to prosecutors about what it suspected might be federal crimes, the Alaska U.S. Attorneys Office declined to pursue charges against either man. 

“We are pleased this misguided witch hunt is finally stumbling to a conclusion,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, the nonprofit providing legal representation for Monnett and Gleason, said via email to Alaska Dispatch on Friday . “We will push to learn how this abusive probe got started and why it was sustained.”

Drowning bears

Monnett's observations of polar bears drowning in the Beaufort Sea, first published in the journal Polar Biology, became a clarion call for environmentalists looking to thwart offshore oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice is melting at record levels and Shell is finally this year drilling.

The IG investigation found that Monnett "made unauthorized disclosures of government emails to a non-government entity." He and Gleason, who co-authored the 2006 polar bear paper, were found to have used an incomplete database and to have deliberately understated data about the polar bear drownings. 

Still, federal investigators were told by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Monnett-Gleason paper had no influence on the Interior Department's 2008 decision to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Monnett and Gleason did their research as employees for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the predecessor to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which regulates oil development in federal waters. Monnett's attorneys, who work for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, have argued Monnett and Gleason fell under scrutiny as part of a politically motivated witch hunt.

At the time Monnett and Gleason were conducting their research, MMS both assessed threats to the environment while also selling oil leases -- a two-fold mission that was a long-time conflict of interest within the agency, according to critics. Monnett's job was to oversee a bowhead whale study, as the whales are among animals facing potential threats from Arctic oil drilling.

Part of this aerial study also included tracking polar bears. In September 2004, Monnett took note that the Arctic was "wide open" for more than 100 miles. After a storm whipped across the Beaufort Sea and broke up any remaining ice, he made a startling observation, as he recalled in an exclusive interview in 2007:

We went back on our next rotation ... and saw a white object in the water that looked weird and realized it was a drowned (polar) bear. We saw another one on another flight. Another one on another flight. And over a period of several days -- week -- there's scattered (dead) bears. A couple were pretty close to (the village of) Kaktovik, another one was pretty far out. And we saw one that was really bloated. You could see it for miles. ... We took a couple photos, but they were unrecognizable. ... These kinds of things you don't know the significance of until later.

The discovery of apparently drowning polar bears came just months before MMS held its first offshore oil lease sale in the Arctic in years. Between 2005 and 2008, MMS sold more than $2.6 billion in leases to oil companies wishing to explore for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which make up a swath of the Arctic Ocean.

Wrongful disclosure 

Shell has spent the most of any oil company on Arctic offshore leases since 2005 and has risked nearly $5 billion in year after year of delays, from buying up leases to fighting off lawsuits to complying with regulations. Only this month the company started preliminary drilling.

Shell's attempt to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean in 2007 gave rise to a complaint lodged against Monnett, as did a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the Inspector General's report, an unnamed co-worker of Monnett's and Gleason's alleged that the two scientists "wrongfully released U.S. government records to an outside party, revealing BOEM's internal deliberative process in its approval of a 2007 exploratory drilling plan" created by Shell.  The scientists were also accused of using incomplete and false data in their journal article about the drowned bears. And they "intended to manipulate data to meet a personal agenda, including influencing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act."

The confidential complainant, described only as a career MMS employee, provided a trail of emails from Monnett to the IG in support of their allegations. 

Investigators concluded Monnett disclosed government emails to others outside the agency, including sending emails to Rick Steiner, the former University of Alaska professor who has been highly critical of the oil industry's ability to respond and clean up oil spills.

During the investigation, federal agents also found that Monnett, who once oversaw a budget of more than $50 million, mishandled a sole-source contract and did not manage it in a way that complied with federal procurement policy.

The Inspector General's report makes no conclusions about whether Monnett or Gleason were engaged in scientific misconduct. BOEM has interpreted this to mean no scientific misconduct occurred. "We have confirmed that the IG's findings do not support a conclusion that the individual scientists involved engaged in scientific misconduct," an agency spokesperson said via email Friday.

BOEM leaders will make the final decision on whether Monnett was in the wrong and whether any action will be taken against him. Gleason has recently left BOEM to work for another government agency, rendering moot any action BOEM might have intended to take against him.

Monnett, who has suffered banishment from the environmental division of BOEM and has been reassigned as an analyst, was told Friday by the agency that he will be allowed to return to his old job, Ruch said. How much of that work still awaits him is unclear, as much of it has been parceled out to other staff, Ruch added.

On Friday, Monnett was given a letter of reprimand for five "very serious" acts of misconduct characterized by Ruch as "supposed improper disclosure" made in 2007 and 2008. BOEM Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank declined to take action on the Inspector General's other findings, according to Ruch.

In its statement Friday, BOEM said:

While the primary focus of the IG's investigation concerned allegations of scientific misconduct on the part of two scientists, the report also raised issues regarding procurement practices in the Alaska Regional office of our predecessor agency many years ago. Since that time and under new leadership, BOEM has substantially strengthened its procurement standards and policies, training and oversight with respect to procurement issues. In light of these reforms, we do not believe the procurement practices described in the IG's report would occur in BOEM's Alaska Regional Office today.

But the fight may not be over yet.

Ruch claims that the "disclosures" for which Monnett was reprimanded helped reveal former President George W. Bush's administration "illegally suppressed adverse environmental consequences" related to offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.

"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," Ruch said.

Ruch believes his client was within his rights as a whistle-blower to come forward and should not be punished for it.

"He should be getting a citation, not a reprimand," Ruch said.

Strange bedfellows

Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and decades-long friend of Monnett's who wouldn't say much about the investigation in July 2011 when Monnett was abruptly suspended has said Monnett's "science is beyond reproach." At the time, the former University of Alaska professor was likely the source of leaks to PEER about MMS, offshore drilling and Shell. The IG's report shows Monnett emailed Steiner, an opponent of offshore oil and gas exploration, copies of many confidential MMS emails, dozens of which PEER would go on to publish on its website. Steiner later served as a board member for the organization which has become an ever-present thorn in the agency's side.

Even after MMS, irritated by the leaks, sent out an agency-wide gag order about the sharing of sensitive information outside the agency, Monnett was undeterred and emailed the gag order email to Steiner. 

Monnett has been officially reprimanded for sending emails to Steiner about "fish and polar bear effects" contained in a pending environmental assessment of an offshore lease area, internal disputes about the BP's Liberty project in the Beaufort Sea, and a "weekly report" about a pending assessment for the lease area Shell was hoping to explore. He was also scolded for sending MMS comments about environmental assessments of Shell's exploration plans to the North Slope Borough of Alaska before the borough had weighed in publicly -- and before its decision to sue MMS to stop Shell's plans. 

The emails leaked by Monnett would later turn up as evidence in a federal court ruling vacating Shell's permits, a win for plaintiffs like the borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

Although MMS had figured out years ago that Monnett was the leak, it chose not to take action fearing that anything it did would end up being published on PEER's website, according to the IG report.

Bad science

Although the IG report questions the methods and rationale Monnett and Gleason used in defending their polar bear article, BOEM is standing behind the science, declining to invoke its own scientific integrity review process.

The IG's report raises questions about whether the scientists submitted fraudulent data to make an politically advantageous observation about the perils faced by polar bears in a changing world. It questions the propriety of a claim by the authors that no dead polar bears had ever been observed prior to 2004 in long-running aerial studies of bowhead whales in the region.

It's possible that other researchers had observed dead bears prior to 2004 but that those observations were not entered into the historical record reviewed by Monnett and Gleason, the report noted.

The Inspector General also questioned why the men intentionally underestimated in the article the significance of seeing 10 bears swimming, and then on another series of flights, four dead bears floating in the same area. Monnett told investigators it was rare to see bears swimming, let alone find floating dead ones: in the prior 25 years of surveying, only 12 bears had been seen swimming and none drowned. Monnett and Gleason's article speculated that if the 10 swimming and four dead bears accurately reflected about 11 percent of polar bears present at the time, "36 bears may have been swimming in open water" and "27 bears may have died as a result of the high offshore winds."

The implications were grim. But the IG pointed out, if Monnett and Gleason had followed their extrapolation model instead of suppressing it, the number of estimated bear fatalities could have been higher. So why keep the estimate low?

"We didn't want somebody to go nuts with it," Monnett told investigators.

Monnett had told investigators that he knew Arctic activists, non-governmental environmental organizations, would use the data as a powerful fundraising tool. Yet the IG uncovered evidence that Monnett had received correspondence from at least one NGO, the World Wildlife Federation, before his article was published. WWF had written to say it was increasingly interested in Arctic conservation and was considering a fundraising campaign that centered on the possibility more polar bears would drown "as a result of climate change over melting ice." 

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."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com