NOAA Opens — Then Halts — Inquiry Into Alleged Political Meddling

The sudden postponement of a probe into allegations of misconduct in adopting offshore oil exploration rules “risks undermining the public’s confidence” in NOAA science, a watchdog group says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened an inquiry earlier this year into whether Trump political appointees illegally weakened rules meant to protect whales from oil industry seismic airgun blasting. Then, just as quietly, it paused the probe.

NOAA’s scientific integrity arm opened the inquiry, which has not been previously reported, in April and put it on hold in late July, citing a loosely related lawsuit, according to Democracy Forward, the watchdog group that requested an investigation.

It’s a move that Democracy Forward says risks further eroding public confidence in the agency still reeling from the so-called “Sharpiegate” fiasco last year, in which White House officials pressured NOAA to issue an unsigned statement denouncing a National Weather Service tweet that corrected President Donald Trump’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian could strike Alabama.

Democracy Forward requested an investigation into alleged misconduct in March, citing a CQ Roll Call report that found agency scientists’ recommendations to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales were “watered down” by Trump political appointees, ultimately allowing for more invasive seismic surveys in the whale’s nearshore migration and calving grounds.

In November 2018, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, authorized five companies to “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” with seismic airgun blasting in their search for fossil fuel reserves in a swath of ocean stretching from Delaware to Florida. But instead of implementing a seasonal ban on seismic blasting within 55 miles of the East Coast ― a distance NOAA biologists said in a draft biological opinion would “drastically reduce the number of North Atlantic right whales that would be exposed” to noise — NMFS’s final report adopted a much small closure area extending 29 miles offshore, as CQ Roll Call reported. It also shrunk the distance at which seismic surveys must shut down when a right whale is spotted, from 1.2 miles to 0.93 miles.

In a March interview with CQ Roll Call, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) accused the Trump administration of “committing blatant scientific and environmental malpractice at the highest order.”

An aerial view of a North Atlantic right whale feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts.
An aerial view of a North Atlantic right whale feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Democracy Forward responded by calling on NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee and the Commerce Department’s inspector general to investigate the extent to which Trump appointees were involved in drafting or reviewing the final biological opinion, as well as whether any federal laws had been violated in the process. The NOAA committee launched the inquiry ― a prerequisite to a full investigation ― in late April, according to the watchdog group.

But late last month, as a 90-day deadline to submit an initial report to Democracy Forward was set to expire, the committee informed the group that it was postponing the inquiry due to litigation that several environmental organizations brought in December 2018 to block seismic oil and gas exploration.

“Please be assured that this is only a postponement of the inquiry,” Cynthia J. Decker, NOAA’s scientific integrity officer, wrote in a July 29 email to Democracy Forward. “As soon as the legal matters are settled, we will re-activate the scientific misconduct inquiry.” She noted that the decision was made in consultation with NOAA’s Office of General Counsel.

The committee did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

That lawsuit, which Democracy Forward is not involved in, argues that NOAA Fisheries violated federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, when it issued incidental take permits to allow companies to conduct seismic surveys. The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act safeguards all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals and manatees, and makes it illegal to incidentally “take” — defined as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill” — such species without a government permit.

Michael Martinez, a senior attorney at Democracy Forward, told HuffPost he doesn’t see how the NOAA inquiry, which focuses specifically on alleged political interference in the biological opinion, overlaps with the ongoing lawsuit.

“To say that litigation in court means this needs to be postponed is odd,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything like this.”

Martinez also questions the timing. When Democracy Forward sent its investigation request, the lawsuit had been going on for more than a year. He wonders what NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee was doing during the 90-day period if not evaluating evidence and producing a report.

Lois Schiffer served as general counsel of NOAA during the Obama administration and helped implement the agency’s scientific integrity policy, developed in 2011 to prevent and investigate allegations of research misconduct. She said that while there were few scientific misconduct complaints during her tenure, she does not recall any instance of an inquiry being halted due to a lawsuit.

“There’s every reason why the science integrity inquiry should move forward,” she said.

In a written response Democracy Forward is slated to send to Deker on Wednesday, the group will argue that the delay is “unauthorized and unjustified,” as there is no procedure that allows for the committee to postpone an inquiry due to an unresolved lawsuit ― litigation that could go on for months or years. It called on the committee to immediately resume its probe.

“The Committee’s decision to postpone the inquiry risks undermining the public’s confidence in the quality, validity, and reliability of NOAA science,” the response reads.

The looming seismic surveys will involve firing extremely loud bursts of air through the water to pinpoint oil and gas reserves beneath the ocean floor ― a process scientists warn can be devastating to marine life. The five companies must still obtain permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct the tests.

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