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Why is a scientist at an offshore oil agency under investigation?

Tony Hopfinger,Patti Epler

A respected government scientist was barred from his job and banned from talking to his his co-workers earlier this month and the question no one seems to be able -- or willing -- to answer is why.

And perhaps more importantly: why now?

Charles Monnett, an Alaskan who has been a key participant in many studies on Arctic wildlife and ecology for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement since 1999, returned from vacation on July 18 to find he had been suspended pending an investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general. He was banned from his Anchorage office, told he couldn’t go in any Interior Department office and that he couldn’t talk to his colleagues or any of myriad contractors who were working for him.

Friends say he'd had no warning of the action although he'd been interviewed by inspector general investigators in February and questioned about an "observational note" that had been published in 2006 -- five years earlier. That note -- his supporters say it's important to make clear it was just a record of his observations and not a formal scientific study -- related how Monnett and fellow scientist, Jeffrey Gleason, had seen four dead polar bears floating in the Beaufort Sea following a major storm. The scientists, who were part of an aerial survey of bowhead whales at the time, hypothesized the bears had drowned due to diminishing sea ice forcing them to swim much longer distance than they were used to. That turned out to be a tough task in stormy weather, they said.

That note, or article, co-authored by both scientists and published two years later in a little-known scientific journal, was picked up by the Wall Street Journal and quickly became the public's touch point for climate change and the devastating effects it was having in the Arctic.

"The reason the note received so much attention is that it made climate change in the Arctic understandable to the average layman and, in doing so, made the polar bear an icon of the climate change debate," wrote Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a complaint filed Thursday with Interior Department on Monnett's behalf.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, is a nonprofit group that protects government employees who work in environmental agencies.

In an interview Thursday, Ruch said the inspector general's office told Monnett and PEER lawyers who accompanied him to an interview earlier this year that a complaint had been filed in 2010, but they won't say who filed it.

"We're wondering what happened in the middle of July that caused his agency to cite this ongoing investigation and only Dr. Monnett and not Dr. Gleason," Ruch said.

John Callahan, a spokesman for BOEMRE in Alaska, said his agency won’t discuss the matter. "It's an ongoing investigation and we just can't talk about it," he said Thursday.

Are actions against Monnett politically motivated?

Ruch and others say Interior's actions against Monnett, coming as Shell Oil and other companies are trying to get permits from BOEMRE to drill in the Arctic next summer, are politically motivated. They say not only does the harsh treatment undermine Monnett's work but sends a message to other scientists that it could happen to them too if they question whether industry should be allowed to work offshore.

"The question is why are they going after him in the first place," said longtime Alaska marine biologist Rick Steiner who counts himself as a friend of Monnett's. "But why now? Nobody knows."

According to a narrative set out in the PEER complaint, Monnett and Gleason were called on the carpet for the observational note soon after it drew international attention through the Journal and other media accounts. But the article had been carefully reviewed by BOEMRE (then called the Minerals Management Service) and was approved by the Alaska regional director before it was submitted for publication, the complaint said.

Gleason soon left the agency and took a lower-grade position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is not being investigated or questioned, Ruch said.

But Monnett continued on and so did the political storm over the drowned polar bears. "This was a very strange coincidence," he told an Alaska Dispatch reporter in August 2007. "It certainly complicated my life. People take a personal interest in something as charismatic as a polar bear."

Monnett was wary even then that his work and his belief that he should be straightforward about it were going to get him into trouble. "I've been the messenger more than once. But I haven't been shot. Yet," he said.

Monnett has history of upsetting at least one oil company

Indeed, it wasn't the first time Monnett had been at the center of a scientific storm. In 1990, as an independent biologist studying the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Monnett, along with others, found that many otters rescued during the spill, cleaned up and later released had actually died. His work called into question the otter rescue program -- which cost about $90,000 per otter -- and drew rebukes from industry as well as federal agencies.

"That just about ended my career," he said in the 2007 interview.

But, in fact, it was his sea otter work that led him to what was then called Minerals Management Service in 1999, he said.

Monnett began helping with the agency's bowhead whale aerial surveys, which had been going on annually since 1979. While on the surveys, Monnett and his team would also observe polar bears and take notes. In 2004, Monnet became the manager of the bowhead survey program -- the same year he and his team observed the four dead polar bears floating in the Beaufort.

In 2007, MMS began partnering with the National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA on the studies. MMS continued to pay for the studies and Monnett was the contract officer representing MMS.

 "It's been a very strong interagency partnership," John Bengtson, director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center of NMFS and NOAA, said in an interview Thursday. "I think Chuck wanted to shift the lead over to us because we had the expertise and had other things he was doing, too."

Bengston declined to speculate Thursday on Monnett's current troubles, but described him as an advocate for "excellent science."

"Chuck has been a very key person in building a partnership between BOEMRE and NOAA," he said. From the aerial bowhead surveys to studying other whales and seals, the two agencies have continued to forge a research relationship.

Bengston declined to say whether industry has ever pressured Monnett. "That's a question for Chuck and for the industry," he said.

Rick Steiner, the marine biologist who also has found himself crosswise with industry, said he has known Monnett for 30 years and considers him a close friend. Steiner won't say too much about what, if anything, Monnett has confided in him about.

"He is a great scientist and a very creative thinker," Steiner said. "His science is beyond reproach."

But Steiner is convinced through his own conversations with people involved in the offshore development industry that oil companies have raised specific concerns about Monnett and some of the studies he has directed be done in his role as the official who oversees contractors for BOEMRE.

Action comes as Obama under pressure to drilling in the Arctic

This week, BOEMRE began issuing stop work orders to some of those contractors, leaving them without funding to finish the work they'd started. One study that tracks polar bears is being continued through the researcher's own funds, according to letters sent to BOEMRE and obtained by PEER.

Increasingly, the Obama administration has come under pressure to approve drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean. Although those same permits were on hold or challenged during the Bush years, it is the Obama White House that is taking flack from industry as well as environmental groups in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of way.

Shell, for instance, has spent billions of dollars and has been trying to get an offshore operation fully permitted for five years. Some leases and permits have been issued, only to be overturned through lawsuits filed by opponents.

In 2008, two years after the public saw them swimming for their lives in the frigid waters, polar bears were listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, the agency set aside more than 187,000 square miles of the Arctic as critical habitat for the bears.

The bear has become the most visible symbol of the fight for the Arctic between pro-development forces and those who want to protect the area. The drowned polar bears ended up in Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and according to PEER, Monnett is again being asked about whether he had anything to do with that.

The state, the oil industry and pro-oil groups have challenged the polar bear listing and habitat designation in court. Environmental groups have pursued lawsuits that seek to overturn lease sales and invalidate permits issued by the federal agencies.   

Late last year, the conservation groups along with the Native Village of Point Hope succeeded in blocking Shell's plans to drill this summer by successfully appealing an air permit that had been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Environmental Appeals Board overturned it.

Shell stepped up the political pressure on its side, taking out ads in national publications and lobbying members of Congress. Several senators and representatives, including Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young, have sponsored or supported legislation aimed at furthering Shell's permit applications, including limiting EPA's power, sidelining the Environmental Appeals Board and streamlining the permitting process through new agency coordination.

More recently, a coalition of national environmental groups announced it would employ the same tactics as part of a new national effort to stop the White House from approving oil company permits. They have stepped up efforts to point out that an Arctic oil spill would be impossible to clean up and are ready to file more lawsuits if permits are issued this year.

It was against this highly charged backdrop that, in February, Monnett received an email from the Interior Department inspector general special investigator requesting an interview. Monnett asked what it was about. But the agent "demurred," according to the PEER complaint.

Monnett then got a notice from his supervisors compelling him to meet with the agent regarding "an investigation into allegations of administrative misconduct" relating to the bowhead whale study. It was only at the interview that it became clear that the focus of the investigation was the 2006 article, the complaint says.

The two agents acknowledge in the interview they have no scientific background yet are apparently being asked to investigate whether Monnett used sound scientific principles in his work, according to a transcript of the interview posted on PEER's website.

The agents seized his computer, work papers and other equipment and kept it for weeks. The complaint says that he never got some of it back.

In late June, the agents wanted to do a follow-up interview with Monnett but he planned to be out of town on vacation at the time. But instead of waiting to meet with him when he got back, BOEMRE decided to suspend him pending the outcome of the investigation, the PEER complaint says.

His colleagues were told only that he was under investigation for "integrity issues" and that he needed to be immediately removed from the job, the complaint says.

"Dr. Monnett has been subjected to a Star Chamber procedure where he does not know what allegations have been made, yet he is being treated as guilty," the complaint says.

The way Monnett is being treated goes against new policies put in place by the Obama administration to protect scientists from political pressure, PEER asserts.

"The investigation and suspension of Dr. Monnet, however, is not an innocent bureaucratic mix-up," the complaint says. "It is our belief that it is a political attempt to interfere with science … Suspending Dr. Monnett disrupts a significant portion of the BOEM (sic) extramural research program at precisely the moment when these studies' results will be most needed to inform agency-decision making."

BOEMRE is expected to issue a final decision on Shell's Beaufort Sea exploration permit by the end of next week. Other proposals are still in the public comment stage but decisions are in the works.

Industry's ability to drill in the Chukchi Sea --another area Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil are targeting -- depends on the outcome of an environmental lawsuit that overturned a 2008 lease sale. Shell is sitting on $2.1 billion worth of leases. A federal judge has ordered BOEMRE to finish it's reconsideration of the environmental impact statement challenged in the legal action by Oct. 3.

BOEMRE won’t talk about Monnett or his case, and so won't say whether any of these looming and critical decisions play a part in his suspension.

Steiner says whatever the reasons it's become clear that BOEMRE, which was created from the ashes of the old MMS after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, is no better than its predecessor. MMS was revamped in large part because regulators and the media discovered significant evidence of its cozy relationship with oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

"What it tells me is you can't trust this agency to be looking out for the public interest," he said. "It's still the same people making the same bad decisions over and over again."

"The biggest scare here is that that they're sending this message to all other agency scientists that you don’t take on the oil industry," Steiner said. "Thou shalt not criticize the oil industry in Alaska."

Contact Patti Epler at patt(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Contact Tony Hopfinger at or on