Federal Arctic scientist Charles Monnett vindicated in whistleblower case against Obama administration

Exploratory offshore well, Beaufort Sea, Alaska (Photo: U.S. Minerals Management Service, Wikimedia Commons)

Exploratory offshore well, Beaufort Sea, Alaska (Photo: U.S. Minerals Management Service, Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Monnett, whose observations of drowned polar bears raised alarms about climate change, had filed a whistleblower complaint in the wake of a witch hunt investigation by the U.S. Interior Department’s Inspector General. The case has been settled with a $100,000 payment to Monnett by the feds and their withdrawal of a letter of reprimand. It appears the investigation had nothing legitimately to do with scientific integrity, but rather was an effort to discredit Monnett in retaliation for his sending emails to outside groups, who used their documentation of government violations in permitting offshore drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean to tie the permits up in court for years.

National Public Radio, December 4: Polar Bear Researcher Gets $100,000 In Settlement With Feds

The settlement ends a controversial saga that began back in 2004, when Monnett saw drowned polar bears while flying over the Arctic during a routine aerial survey of whales. He reported on the dead bears in a scientific journal, and Al Gore mentioned them in the movie An Inconvenient Truth. The dead polar bears became a potent symbol of the threat of melting ice.

But in 2010, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General received allegations of scientific misconduct from a federal employee. Investigators repeatedly interrogated Monnett and a colleague about their report of dead polar bears.

Monnett believes this was an effort to silence scientific efforts that might interfere with oil and gas development in the Arctic. …

Last year, the investigation ended. And Monnett’s employer, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said it did not look like he had engaged in any scientific misconduct. But the agency did officially reprimand Monnett for an unrelated matter, leaking internal government documents. …

So Monnett lodged a whistle-blower complaint, with the help of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, saying that the five emails he had sent to outside individuals showed that the agency was breaking laws to push through Arctic offshore drilling permits. …

“Well, I’m sad, I guess. It’s been disappointing,” says Monnett. “As a young person, fresh out of graduate school, I was idealistic, and I thought that it would all be about the truth.”

From the December 4 news release by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which represented Dr. Monnett in his whistleblower case against the Department of the Interior:


$100,000 Payment and Belated Secretary’s Award Resolves Whistleblower Complaint

Washington, DC — The federal scientist whose sightings of drowned polar bears galvanized public understanding of climate change in the Arctic has retired as part of a settlement of his whistleblower complaint against the U.S. Department of Interior. The agreement, posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), ends a benighted attempt to officially punish and intimidate scientists for the political implications of their work.

Dr. Charles M. Monnett, a senior scientist with Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), was subjected to a heavy-handed, baseless and prolonged three-year investigation by its Office of Inspector General (IG) into unspecified allegations about the peer-reviewed observational note published in a 2006 issue of the journal Polar Ecology. Despite numerous interrogations, searches of tens of thousands of emails and four separate criminal referrals (all rejected) against Monnett and his coauthor, BOEM found no scientific error by either scientist.

Following its inability to identify any scientific error, BOEM ultimately issued Dr. Monnett a letter of reprimand, the lowest level of discipline, for a series of five emails he sent to outside individuals in 2007 and 2008 – actions the agency had known about since before the IG investigation but never acted upon. Through PEER, Dr. Monnett filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on several grounds, including that the emails documented BOEM legal violations in trying to ram through Arctic offshore drilling permits that were later thrown out in court. …

“This agency attempted to silence me, discredit me and our work and send a chilling message to other scientists at a key time when permits for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic were being considered. They failed on the first two goals, but I believe that what they did to me did make others afraid to speak up, even internally. Following over two years of hell for me and my family, my name has been cleared and the accusations against the scientific findings in our paper have been shown to be groundless” Monnett said. “However, I can no longer in good conscience work for an agency that promotes dishonesty, punishes those who actually stand up for scientific integrity, and that cannot tolerate scientific work not pre-shaped to serve its agenda.”

Prior to the IG investigation, Dr. Monnett had overseen a $60 million portfolio of cutting edge research aimed to answer key questions needed to evaluate the effects of oil and gas on marine mammals and pristine Arctic ecosystems. Since that time, his studies have all been reassigned and the flow of important new research through BOEM has largely ceased.

Alaska Dispatch, December 4: Controversial clash between Arctic scientist and federal agency ends in settlement, split

Things are different now at BOEM [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management], but Monnett isn’t convinced “different” amounts to better. He believes the agency has rebuilt itself to better fit a model where scientists are forced to be compliant with top-down agendas, to resist taking a hard look at things, to just get the job done quickly and efficiently so that permits can be approved.

“It’s different, but only because dissent has been smashed,” Monnett said.

See this by Eli Rabett at Rabett Run, from January 6, 2013, on why the Interior Department was going after Monnett: It was Dr. Monnett in the Email, Leaking to Rick Steiner and PEER

Recently, a Shell drilling vessel, the Kulluk,  broke free from it’s towing lines in a storm and ran aground.  Personnel on the platform had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and there is now a major effort to refloat the Kulluk and ensure there is no secondary damage from oil leaks and such. …

Why was the Department of the Interior going after Charles Monnett? Eli says:

The Kulluk is the short answer, more specifically BOEM wanting to approve Shell’s drilling plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.  Email leaks from Monnett were used to tie Shell, BOEM and BSEE [the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforement] up in court, delaying the issuance of permits four years from 2008 to late 2012 and indeed, this was the only ground that at the conclusion of their farcical investigation that the DOI Inspector General cited to reprimand Monnett. …

The idiotic act of Eric May, DOI IG special inspector was a futile effort to find something else to hang Monnett with.  Dr. Monnett had a strong whistle blower defense, especially because the 9th Circuit had ruled in 2008 that the emails showed BOEM had messed up their assessment of the safety of Shell’s drilling plans. …

The remaining question is how high up in DOI the effort to get rid of Monnett and hide the reason why went, especially because of the intersection with Steiner, the Sea Grant Program and NOAA  This is key from an environmental point of view, because it speaks to the Obama administration’s attitude toward the Arctic environment.

Also see:

Media Matters for America: “Polar Bear Fraud: How Fox News Smeared a Scientist

Ugo Bardi, at The frog that jumped out!, December 5: Climate: another harassed scientist fights back


Monnett whistleblower complaint

Settlement Agreement between Monnett and BOEM

Interrogation of Charles Monnett by Office of Inspector General, Department of the Interior, Fenruary 23, 2011

Earlier CSW posts:

Drawing battle lines over impending Arctic Ocean oil drilling – while House Republicans advance radical offshore drilling expansion bill (July 16, 2012)

“Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy (December 5, 2011)

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