Scientists Ignored on Pitfalls of Arctic Oil Leasing

WASHINGTON, DC, February 5, 2008 (ENS) – The Interior Department is hastening to stop the flow of internal e-mails from its own scientists that undermine the legality of its offshore oil and gas lease sales in federal Arctic waters, according to correspondence released Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

During the past three weeks, PEER has released a series of internal e-mails from current and former Interior scientists raising questions about how badly environmental assessments of Arctic offshore oil development were skewed.

The e-mails are contrary to Bush administration claims that environmental risks were adequately considered prior to offering tracts for lease in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas for oil exploration.

The frozen Chukchi Sea
(Photo by A.G. Slater)

“Congress should hear directly from the agency scientists whose work was altered or axed altogether,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals.

Ruch said most congressional attention has been focused on the delays in the decision whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act until after the lease sale in the Chukchi Sea is held on February 6, while the suppression of evidence has not been as closely considered.

“The Bush administration oil rush in the Arctic is lubricated by systematic scientific fraud,” accused Ruch.

The e-mails released by PEER have fueled two new lawsuits in the past week that threaten to block new lease sales and lend further support to ongoing litigation against earlier lease sales.

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. (See ENS story Natives, Conservationists Sue to Block Chukchi Sea Oil Leasing)

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.

In a January 26, 2007 e-mail, for example, former MMS polar bear biologist James Wilder pleaded with his superiors to hold leasing activity until minimal protections could be ensured.

“I do not see how the MMS can pass the ‘red face’ test …when polar bear issues which have been raised have been repeatedly and completely ignored by both Shell and MMS,” wrote Wilder.

“[R]equests for critical information” on polar bear impacts have been “repeatedly denied,” he wrote.

“Large polar bear populations “are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill,” warned Wilder.

The e-mail refers to the “extreme pressure” placed on MMS scientists to speed environmental reviews of plans to open up the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi Seas to oil and gas leasing.

In the latest action, MMS pledges to offer the Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193 on February 6, 2008.

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.

Marked “Attorney-Client Privileged / FOIA Exempt” but released to the public by PEER, Loman’s memo says, “Our attorney/advisors have taken certain measures in regards to these e-mail messages in ongoing litigation. As such, 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,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

Ruch said 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,” he said.

MMS has denied requests by conservation groups filed under Freedom of Information Act for the very documents that PEER has now posted.

“In fact,” Ruch says, “MMS is withholding the vast majority of documents that provide the basis for MMS’s environmental impact analysis.”

MMS has declared that roughly 5,500 pages out of about 5,781 pages of responsive material are exempt from production.

The agency “has redacted hundreds of pages, consisting principally of emails from MMS employees, by deleting the entire text of each email and virtually the entire text of each attachment,” says Ruch.

Shell, which is interested in the Chukchi leasing round, says the company is “committed to listening to local people and getting the best cultural and environmental information and input.”

Ben Dillon, regional government and external affairs manager for Shell Exploration & Production Company in the Americas, said, “In Alaska, we know stakeholders have a number of concerns related to our industry, including potential impacts to subsistence living and Native communities, protecting an area rich in biodiversity and preventing oil spills in an arctic environment.”

View This Story On Eco-mmunity Map.