The onset of the Obama administration was supposed to mean a lot of things, including an end to the Bush-era war on science, especially when it came to climate change and endangered species. No agency needed these changes more than the Department of the Interior, which among other things was responsible for the faulty oversight that led to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.
Unfortunately, an ugly episode involving drowned polar bears, a distinguished scientist and the misguided drive to drill for oil in the Arctic has turned that hope on its head.
Dr. Charles Monnett is a respected Interior Department scientist with a particular expertise in marine mammals. The roots of his current troubles go back to 2004, when he and another scientist spotted drowned polar bears in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. Those observations were published -- after being thoroughly reviewed by his scientific peers -- in 2006 in the publication Polar Biology.
Monnett's observations received considerable media attention when they were presented because it was the first (but not the last) recorded instance of polar bears drowning as the sea ice retreated, a phenomenon that's intricately connected with global climate change. His paper was ultimately just one of hundreds of studies reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service when it listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.
Late last year, the government protected 187,000 square miles of "critical habitat" for the polar bear. That designation didn't sit well with the oil industry and the state of Alaska, both of which are pushing hard to drill for oil in the same Arctic habitat that the polar bear relies upon.
Just a few months later, on Feb. 23, 2011, criminal investigators came calling to Dr. Monnett. These two investigators, neither with scientific training, grilled him about "potential scientific misconduct" relating to those drowned polar bears and his 2006 paper. (The transcript of the interview is a fascinating and disturbing read as it shows the heavy-handed and decidedly unscientific nature of the inquisition.) His computer and notes were seized and, on July 18, he was put on administrative leave by his employer, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), the Interior Department agency in charge of approving oil development in Alaska. BOEMRE was created last year from the ashes of its predecessor, the Minerals Management Service, in the wake of the Gulf disaster.
In July, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint against the agency for violating its scientific integrity policy. Investigators required Dr. Monnett to attend a second interview on Aug. 9, again questioning him about the polar bear paper and an agency contract for polar bear research.
Since Dr. Monnett published his paper, bears have continued to starve, drown, and even resort to cannibalism as the Arctic sea ice melt has accelerated, and many more papers documenting these impacts have been published. Some, like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, have jumped on the investigation to attack protection for the polar bear and the science of global warming. But even were there some credible complaint regarding Dr. Monnett's paper, which there is not, that paper is but one drop in the tsunami of evidence showing that unchecked global warming will drive polar bears to extinction.
So what is going on here? At the end of his February interview, according to the transcript, Dr. Monnett told the investigators exactly what he thinks this is about:
My management have been trying to kill this study for a while, ever since really the polar bear thing came out... they don't want any impediment to... what they view as their mission which is to...put those areas into [oil] production... They basically blew everybody out of here that showed any, uh, desire to be a conscientious scientist.
The investigators, uninterested in that line of inquiry, abruptly ended the interview.
The episode is unnerving and infuriating on several fronts, including that the government would marshal its criminal investigation unit to mount an absurd challenge to scientific findings that had already cleared all of the time-tested hurdles of scientific publishing.
Further still, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich seem intent on ignoring Dr. Monnett's allegations that his agency higher-ups wanted to stifle his scientific findings in the interest of ramping up Arctic drilling, even at the expense of the imperiled polar bear (and, indeed, an oil spill in Alaska's Polar Bear Seas would be disastrous and impossible to clean up).
Life is all about timing and so, apparently is political meddling: On Aug. 4, while Dr. Monnett remained locked out of his office, the Interior Department approved Shell Oil's plans to drill in the heart of polar bear habitat in Alaska's Beaufort Sea.