Washington, DC — Scientists are subjected to U.S. Interior Department management practices that “hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses” in reviewing Alaskan offshore drilling projects, according to a Government Accountability Office report released today. The report confirms scientists’ accounts channeled through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that Interior managers routinely “suppressed” critical findings on issues ranging from the likelihood of oil spills to acoustic damage to whales to introduction of invasive species.
Top Interior Department officials have had this critical GAO report for several weeks before the agency unveiled a major expansion of offshore drilling in coastal waters, including the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS0 last week. While the Interior Department in its comments stated that it agreed with the GAO report, it has left the same management structure that obstructed honest reviews in charge of its Alaska offshore projects. The GAO report made several critical findings, including:
- Management pressure resulted in scientific reviews of the environmental impacts of Alaskan offshore oil drilling that were so incomplete that they have been largely invalidated in court rulings in lawsuits brought by environmentalists;
- Scientists were under pressure to churn out reviews that omitted important environmental concerns. In reaction, many scientists left the Alaska OCS Office of the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency issuing offshore drilling permits. “From 2003 to 2008, 11 to 50 percent of the analysts in that section left each year,” according to the report; and
- Interior officials allowed scientists access to project data only on a “need to know” basis in order to protect what they believed to be the proprietary nature of oil industry information.
“If the same managers who manipulated and suppressed scientific evaluations are still in charge, why should the public expect candid assessments of environmental impacts to suddenly begin?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization’s previous disclosures of scientists’ complaints triggered the GAO report.. “It is unsettling that Interior Department officials sat on this scathing GAO report and did not mention any aspect of it when they blithely announced their ambitious offshore drilling agenda just days ago.”
Despite promises to address problems, rules issued by the Interior Department in 2010 leave the oil companies in charge of what information scientists can share. As a result, it will remain difficult to prevent recurrences of the misconduct that GAO detailed, since all of the relevant material will be classified as “proprietary” and thus beyond the public’s view.
Another problem is that a directive by President Obama in March 2009 to develop scientific integrity and transparency policies, including whistleblower protection, appears to have been abandoned. The White House was supposed to unveil draft rules for agencies back in July 2009 but those rules never emerged and their status remains cloudy, at best.
“Scientists remain as vulnerable to political pressure today in the Obama administration as they did under Bush,” Ruch added. “Without accountability for past abuses, it is difficult to take pledges of reform seriously.”