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Scientists at BOEM and BSEE Report Political Interference and Industry Influence

by Tim Donaghy

August 17, 2018

A survey of scientists working at BOEM and BSEE uncovered pressure to avoid climate change, industry influence, and a fear of expressing concerns about scientific integrity.

Oil from a broken pipeline coats miles of the Pacific shoreline and endangers kelp forests at Refugio State Beach near Goleta, Calif., after a 24-inch underground pipeline broke and leaked into a culvert leading to the ocean. California's kelp forests provide habitat to sea otters, fish, sea lions and other marine life. Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline said up to 105,000 gallons of oil were released before the pipeline was shut down.

Federal government scientists are on the front-lines in keeping us all healthy and safe from threats ranging from Ebola to tainted food to super-charged hurricanes. But a new scientist survey has found that political interference under the Trump administration has degraded the ability of scientists to do their job.

Scientists working at two Interior Department agencies in charge of offshore oil drilling report pressure to downplay or avoid climate change in their work, an undue level of influence from the oil and gas industry, and — perhaps most disturbingly — a reluctance to come forward with scientific integrity problems for fear of retaliation.

Survey Says

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University to send a survey to hundreds of scientists working at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). BOEM is the Interior Department agency in charge of leasing federal waters for offshore oil and gas drilling, while BSEE is tasked with ensuring the safety of those operations and preventing pollution.

We received 63 surveys from BOEM and 32 from BSEE. These responses were part of a larger survey of federal scientists at EPA, FDA, NOAA and many other federal agencies, which is the latest in a series conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Full results for the larger survey can be found online at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

First Rule Is Don’t Talk About Climate Change

Unsurprisingly given President Trump’s wrong-headed denialism, climate change has been a particular flashpoint in these agencies. Fourteen BOEM scientists report that they have been asked or told to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work, and 16 scientists reported implicit pressure to avoid the topic altogether. In an open-ended essay response, one scientist provided some context for what these numbers mean, stating:

“The Gulf [regional office] has moved away from addressing/studying effects of coastal land-loss (something it has done for decades) fearing its associations with climate change.”

So as oceans rise and Louisiana’s coast erodes away, BOEM has simply stopped asking questions where the answer might prove inconvenient.

Even worse, 24 BOEM scientists (42% of respondents) disagreed that BOEM currently has adequate procedures for assessing the climate change impacts of agency actions. This is especially alarming because President Trump has instituted an “Energy Dominance” policy that threatens to open up nearly every American coastline to offshore oil drilling that would worsen climate change.

The Interior Department has long resisted doing a full and complete accounting of the climate consequences of leasing out publicly owned coal, oil, and gas but Americans need and deserve to have trustworthy information about these policies. Despite that, the Interior Department has proposed drastically reducing the amount of information provided to the public through environmental reviews. Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has proposed an arbitrary page limit on environmental reviews, which scientists said would have “adverse effects on public involvement” and would limit “comprehensive evaluations of the environmental consequences” of agency actions.

And multiple scientists noted that the consequences of this political interference will fall hardest on communities of color:

“Low income communities close to industrial facilities are unfairly treated even when environmental and human impact is irrefutable.”

Sadly, business as usual means continuing the pattern of environmental racism stretching back over a century of oil and gas development.

The Louisiana Responder uses a boom to collect oil that leaked from a flow line at one of Shell’s drilling sites about 90 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The company says about 88,200 gallons of oil leaked from the line.

What Industry Wants, Industry Gets

The Trump administration has consistently sought to prop up fossil fuels however they can, by appointing oil industry cronies to positions of power, opening up public lands to drilling, and rolling back every public health and safety regulation they can get their hands on. Scientists report that it has been no different at BOEM and BSEE.

Seventeen BOEM scientists and 13 BSEE scientists stated that the ”level of consideration of business interests hinders the ability of my agency to make science-based decisions.” As one scientist put it:

“Science is often ignored if it could adversely affect industry profits.  The American taxpayer (a stakeholder) interests are not of concern.”

Another stated:

“Advocacy for oil and gas interests has turned science into a supporting role for the agency’s development mission. Science is judged by how well it supports development interests, rather than on its own merits.”

If You See Something, Say Something

Perhaps most disturbingly, 17 BOEM scientists and 11 BSEE scientists disagreed that they can “openly express any concerns about the mission-driven work of my agency without fear of retaliation.” Additionally, 17 BOEM scientists and 8 BSEE scientists stated that they would “not come forward” if they were to “obtain knowledge about a scientific integrity issue.” Former Interior Department policy expert Joel Clement resigned in protest in October 2017 after experiencing what he felt was retaliation for speaking out about the dangers of climate change.

Catastrophic oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon could cost lives and devastate coastal communities, local economies, and the environment. Trump’s chilling effect on these agencies makes energy development more risky and people in this country less safe. In the past, BSEE has encouraged the offshore oil industry to improve its safety culture, but it seems they might have some work to do inside their own agency.

Keep It In The Ground

Although President Trump wants to radically expand offshore oil drilling, putting our coasts, our communities and our climate at risk, the truth is that federal oil and gas leasing is a bad idea that needs to be ended as soon as possible. Our climate can’t afford new fossil fuel leasing, and the government must put in place an ambitious plan to ramp down existing fossil fuel extraction in a way that is consistent with the global climate goals agreed to in Paris.

But in the very short term, Americans need to know that the Interior Department is basing their policies on the best science we have, rather than fake news from the President’s Twitter account.

Read the full BOEM and BSEE survey briefing here.

 

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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