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Photos: Big Oil, polar bears and science

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published September 28, 2012

A government scientist who drew international attention after publishing a 2006 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.

Dr. Charles Monnett's observations of polar bears drowning in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern shores, first published in the journal Polar Biology, became a clarion call for environmentalists looking to thwart offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice is melting at record levels and Royal Dutch Shell started to sink drill bits this month.

On Friday, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department released the results of its investigation, which found that Monnett "made unauthorized disclosures of government emails to a non-government entity." He and his colleague, Dr. Jeffrey Gleason, who co-authored the 2006 polar bear paper, were found to have used an incomplete database and deliberately understated data about the polar bear drownings.

Still, federal investigators were told by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Monnett's and Gleason's 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, the predecessor to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 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 critics say was a long-time conflict of interest within the agency. Monnett's job was to oversee a bowhead whale study, as the whales are among the animals that face potential threats from Arctic oil drilling.

The discovery of apparently drowning polar bears came just months before MMS held its first offshore oil lease sale in the Arctic in years.

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