Government Scientists Report Political Pressure in Arctic Drilling Decision

by Tim Donaghy

December 15, 2015

To avoid criticism if Shell missed its 2015 Arctic drilling deadline, the Department of the Interior rushed out an Environmental Impact Statement so quickly that staff scientists felt the quality of the document was compromised. Now, several employees have left the agency in response.

People Versus Shell

Greenpeace activists display a 'People vs Shell' banner near Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling rig.

© Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

When Shell Oil decided to end its Arctic drilling program in September 2015, after its first well came up dry, the company blamed a “challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment” for its decision. But a recent report from the Inspector General (IG) shows that, far from erecting barriers to Shell’s Arctic drilling, the Department of the Interior rushed out a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) so quickly that staff scientists felt the quality of the document was compromised and several employees left the agency in response.

The Chief of Staff for the Department of the Interior (DOI), Tommy Beaudreau, admitted to the Inspector General that this aggressive timeline was implemented so that the agency could not be blamed if Shell missed the 2015 drilling season. At the risk of stating the obvious, the desire to avoid criticism is no excuse for short-circuiting established processes of scientific review. The U.S. public relies on the expertise of federal scientists to provide high-quality credible information to policy-makers — a standard that does not seem to have been met in this case.

But you don’t have to take my word for it; the testimony of numerous agency scientists to the IG is plenty eyebrow-raising all on its own.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

The story begins in January 2014 when a federal court found fault with a 2011 SEIS evaluating the 2008 sale of offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea and remanded it back to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM, an agency under DOI) for fixing. The problems identified by the court were not minor. The court found that BOEM’s initial estimate that 1 billion barrels of oil would be produced from the Chukchi Sea was unrealistically small, and hence, the environmental impacts were wrongly minimized in the analysis. BOEM redid the analysis using an estimate of 4.3 billion barrels.

According to one regional supervisor, the scale of this change was such that BOEM was “essentially tasked with creating an entirely new EIS,” rather than a minor revision. The EIS process is designed to collect information about environmental impacts to aid government planning, and so BOEM was required to finalize the SEIS before making an official decision on the Lease Sale itself. However, according to the IG, many BOEM employees had the opposite impression — that DOI decision-makers had already decided to approve the leases and were rushing completion of the SEIS “for Shell” so that the oil company could drill in 2015.

While a full EIS can take multiple years to complete, only six months elapsed between the final court remand (April 24, 2014) and the release of a new draft SEIS for public comment on October 31, 2014. After reviewing hundreds of thousands of public comments, a final SEIS and Record of Decision were released in March 2015 — just in time for DOI to approve Shell’s Exploration Plan and greenlight drilling, which began in July 2015.

Beaudreau admitted to the IG that he instituted such an aggressive timeline so that “Shell could not blame BOEM if the company elected not to proceed in 2015 for its own internal reasons.” Beaudreau also mentioned external political pressure from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and the risk that “Congress could impact BOEM’s budget and authority” as reasons for his decision.

One of Shell's drill rigs, the Polar Pioneer sits in a bay in Unalaska's Dutch Harbor. Shell wants to begin drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, but it first has to transport its rigs through Unalaska, where residents are expressing their concerns.

One of Shell’s drill rigs, the Polar Pioneer sits in a bay in Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor.

Scientists Speak Out

The second Final SEIS is a massive document totaling over 1,500 pages and touching on a incredibly diverse range of connected topics — from oil spill modeling to wildlife populations — many of which needed to be revisited in the context of the new scenario. At least four BOEM scientists and managers alleged to the IG that the compressed timeline for finishing the SEIS significantly compromised the scientific credibility of the product.

  • A BOEM wildlife biologist stated that it “was unavoidable that the SEIS was significantly compromised due to this restrictive timeline.”
  • Another BOEM fish biologist stated that “she believed the timeline was ‘so crushed’ that the quality of the SEIS was significantly compromised.” The fish biologist found the process “disingenuous and dispiriting” and ultimately “decided to retire from BOEM years earlier than she had planned so that she could regain her ‘personal and scientific integrity.’”
  • A former BOEM regional supervisor told management that “her team could meet the deadlines but the quality of the report would be compromised.” The regional manager ultimately decided to resign her position with BOEM and stated that “BOEM’s approach in completing the SEIS did not comport with how ‘good Government’ should operate.”
  • A NEPA coordinator stated that the expedited timeline and the absence of needed resources led to a SEIS that was “absolutely compromised” and “full of errors.”
  • An oceanographer said that she had never “worked on an SEIS with such a short timeline in her 26-year career.”

A common theme among the complaints was that the timeline removed the opportunity for collaboration, consistency checks and internal peer-review, all of which would be critical to the document’s credibility because of the “interconnected” nature of the topics covered by the SEIS.

At least some BOEM managers raised concerns about the process internally. One regional manager told Alaska Regional Director Dr. James Kendall that “the SEIS would be significantly compromised because of the expedited timeline, and she did not want to be associated with it.” Kendall stated that he “told her to stop ‘naysaying’” and instead encourage her employees to “meet the challenge.”

The timeline seemed to place considerable stress and pressure on the scientific staff leading to low morale and numerous staff experts resigning or retiring from the agency — including the fish biologist and regional supervisor mentioned above. Beaudreau told the IG that “as many as six employees in the Alaska OCS Region office may have resigned or retired early as a result of their concerns with the timeline and resulting SEIS.”

Concerns About Altered Findings

Despite all this, the topline conclusion of the IG report was that DOI and BOEM decision-makers “did not change the scientific analysis or findings” of the SEIS. The IG report spends several pages detailing the claims of a BOEM sociocultural specialist who was tasked with writing sections of the SEIS on subsistence, public health, and environmental justice. The sociocultural specialist claimed that the relevant sections of the 2011 SEIS were inadequate and she spent hours researching and rewriting those sections.

After submitting the sections in October 2014, the sociocultural specialist said that her section on public health was “gutted.” Her supervisor told her that “no one in management understood [the] public health section” and that it was too long. After discussions with management, the sociocultural specialist became disillusioned with the process and decided to leave BOEM in November 2014. After reviewing drafts of the sections in question, the IG concluded that while “content had been edited,” management had not “altered the sociocultural specialist’s scientific analysis and findings of environmental impacts.” The IG did not make those drafts public or elaborate on how the edits may or may not have changed the sections in question.

Regardless, even if no scientific findings were altered, the report makes it clear that BOEM’s scientific staff had serious reservations about the process and the credibility of the final SEIS. Altering findings is perhaps the most extreme form of political interference in science, but it is not the only way federal science can be compromised by politics.

Paddle In Seattle, sHell No

Kayaktivists at the Paddle in Seattle in June, a water-borne demonstration against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.

The Long, Sad History of Political Interference at DOI

Under the George W. Bush administration, federal scientists faced an unprecedented wave of political interference in their work. To name just a few examples, political appointees edited EPA reports on climate change, FDA whistleblowers were silenced when they drew attention to drug safety problems, and scientists were prevented from speaking to the media about their work. When President Obama took office he pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” and directed federal agencies to craft Scientific Integrity Policies to protect the ability of federal scientists to do their work.

The Department of the Interior — which oversees fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters — was ground zero for many of these problems. A 2007 Inspector General report found that a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Interior named Julie MacDonald, “had bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service” and “demoralized the FWS program with her interference in endangered species studies.” After MacDonald’s resignation, FWS ended up reviewing and reversing a large number of endangered species decisions that she was involved with and the FWS director called her a “a blemish on the scientific integrity” of the agency.

Yet another IG report uncovered an unbelievable sex-and-drugs scandal at the Minerals Management Service — the precursor agency to BOEM. The IG found that MMS employees “accepted gifts, steered contracts to favored clients, and engaged in drug use and illicit sex with employees of the energy firms” they were tasked with regulating. Mismanagement at MMS was eventually found to have cost the U.S. taxpayer millions of dollars and the agency was completely reorganized into 3 distinct units: BOEM, BSEE and ONRR.

During the Bush era, MMS scientists alleged that their scientific analyses were removed from environmental assessments and the agency saw a high rate of turnover among environmental experts. In 2011, DOI published a policy implementing President Obama’s Scientific Integrity order, but at times the Department has struggled to live up to the policy’s high standards. A politically-motivated investigation into Charles Monnett, a BOEM biologist who published observations of polar bear mortality, found no evidence of misconduct and Dr. Monnett retired from federal service with a $100,000 settlement. Ironically, DOI’s first Scientific Integrity officer ended up filing a Scientific Integrity complaint with the agency after being fired.

Walrus Colony in the ArcticWalross Kolonie in der Arktis.

Restoring Scientific Integrity

While BOEM scientists were working long hours finalizing the SEIS, their colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS, also part of DOI) were fending off Shell’s lobbying efforts on another topic: a rule aimed at protecting the Pacific walrus. The FWS had required that oil rigs be more than 15 miles apart in order to minimize disturbances to the walrus, and Shell (whose Exploration Plan called for two rigs 9 miles apart) mounted an intense lobbying campaign to get the rule changed. In an internal email, FWS walrus expert Christopher Putnam called Shell’s arguments “disingenuous” and warned that “Shell insists it is not they who must comply with Federal regulations, but we who should change the regulations to accommodate Shell.”

In the end, either through luck or leadership, FWS held firm. The 15 mile rule was applied to Shell’s operations and as a result Shell only drilled one well in the Chukchi Sea in 2015. But the idea that fossil fuel companies can manipulate the agencies that regulate them through implicit or explicit political pressure, is hugely troubling. Now that scientific studies have shown that we need to keep large portions of known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground, the independence of these regulatory agencies becomes even more crucial.

Even though Shell has left the Arctic, the IG report shouldn’t be the last word on this issue. DOI has a Scientific Integrity Policy and a process for investigating claims of political interference. The DOI’s Policy affirms that the agency supports a “culture of scientific integrity” and does not tolerate “loss of integrity in the performance of scientific activities or in the use of scientific products in decision making.” The Policy even encourages employees to “obtain appropriate peer reviews of their work.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell should use the established Scientific Integrity process to take a hard look at the experiences of both BOEM and FWS experts and take the necessary steps to ensure scientific integrity is upheld.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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