Washington, DC — The Interior Department is scrambling to stanch the flow of internal e-mails from its own scientists that undermine the legality of its aggressive offshore oil and gas lease sales in federal Arctic waters, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The e-mails belie Bush administration claims that environmental risks were adequately considered prior to offering tracts in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas for drilling.
During the past three weeks, PEER has released a series of internal e-mails from current and former Interior scientists raising troubling questions about how badly environmental assessments of Arctic offshore oil development were skewed. These e-mails have fueled two new lawsuits in the past week that threaten to stymie new lease sales and lend further support to ongoing litigation against earlier lease sales.
Reflecting mounting concern about the legal consequences of this growing stream of internal e-mails that contradict official pronouncements, Jeffery Loman, the Deputy Regional Director for Interior’s Minerals Management Service, in a January 31, 2008 e-mail to all employees sought to limit further damage:
“…we have been directed to refrain from discussing the PEER press releases and the e-mail messages with anyone outside our organization including any representative with the media.”
Interior’s lawyers, meanwhile, are trying to prevent further releases of incriminating e-mails. In a letter dated January 29, 2008, Associate Interior Solicitor Arthur Gary wrote to PEER –
“…we request that you immediately cease your unauthorized publication of these privileged communications and return them to MMS [Minerals Management Service], along with other MMS communications or documents in your possession that MMS has not authorized for disclosure.”
“PEER has every intention of continuing to publish e-mails and other internal documents that anguished scientists have provided to us,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the e-mails show official misconduct and, as such, are shielded by the Whistleblower Protection Act, among other statutes. “There are a lot more disclosures to come; agency specialists have sent in enough material to start a CD collection.”
Lawsuits brought by Native communities and conservation groups contend that Interior failed to honestly reflect oil spill dangers and negative effects on endangered marine life, such as bowhead whales, as well as on polar bear populations struggling to cope with shrinking sea ice due to global warming. Another lawsuit filed last week charges that Interior is improperly withholding thousands of documents, primarily internal e-mails, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
“Congress should hear directly from the agency scientists whose work was altered or axed altogether,” Ruch added, noting that much of the congressional attention has been focused on the delays in the decision whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. “The Bush administration oil rush in the Arctic is lubricated by systematic scientific fraud.”