For Immediate Release: Apr 10, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Lawsuit to Penetrate Alaska Petroleum Controversy
Premature Disclosure of New NPRA Estimates Led to Resignation in Ethics Protest
Washington, DC — The Interior Department refuses to come clean on its allegedly improper peek at highly sensitive estimates of new reserves at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt demanded access to NPR-A data before public release in violation of agency ethics rules.
On December 17, 2017, Murray Hitzman, U.S. Geological Survey Associate Director for Energy and Minerals, resigned following Bernhardt’s order that USGS turn over information on NPR-A estimates before that information was publicly released on December 22, 2017. In his resignation letter, he wrote:
“Scientific integrity is the bedrock of the Survey and must be preserved for the Bureau to properly serve the Nation. Though I understand my resignation will not change the data release, I feel that as head of the Energy and Minerals Mission Area I must register my protest of this action.”
USGS rules on Fundamental Science Practices forbid pre-release circulation of these estimates. Like agricultural commodity reports, advance knowledge could move markets or create fortunes for tipped-off speculators. Bernhardt’s background is as a lobbyist and attorney for energy corporations.
On February 23, 2018, PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents related to the incident and its aftermath, including why Bernhardt ordered the pre-release of the petroleum reserve estimates and whether Interior disseminated the data prior to their public release. The agency acknowledged but otherwise ignored the request, resulting in today’s suit to compel production.
“USGS has this scientific integrity rule to prevent political or economic manipulation of highly sensitive internal data – which appears to be precisely what happened here,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s December 27 press release breathlessly trumpeting a “HUGE Increase in Recoverable Energy Resources.” “Interior has a history of oil-related scandals dating back to Teapot Dome and this episode may become yet another entry in this infamous registry.”
Interior’s failure to turn over records about this incident masks, among other issues, whether –
- Bernhardt acted upon or leaked the assessment information before it was publicly released;
- Interior’s claim of acting on the basis of a legal opinion was true or false; and
- Any reforms or changes in protocol resulted from this sharp disagreement among Interior officials.
“Interior’s lack of transparency only reinforces the inference that they do not believe their actions could withstand public scrutiny,” added Ruch, noting that Zinke’s office has become especially averse to responding to FOIA requests. “Unfortunately, inside Zinke’s autocratic realm the only apparent recourse for conscientious employees is resignation.”