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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jeff Childs, former colleague of Charles Monnett, speaks out against the reprisal tactics of BOEMRE, asks why agency managers have not been investigated

I worked with Chuck Monnett at the MMS AK Region office (AKR); I know him to be an excellent wildlife ecologist; he is ethical and is a hard working federal scientist. I joined Chuck and several other marine mammal observers and our contract pilots (for aerial surveys over the Alaskan Beaufort Sea) a few days after the drowned polar bear sightings were made. All (pilots, observers, data recorder) reported similarly of the drowned bear sightings. I have NO DOUBT that the drowned bears were sighted. I personally have seen polar bears swimming north of the Alaskan Beaufort and Chukchi coasts out 50+ miles during aerial surveys made relating to the BWASP and COMIDA studies. These bears were typically swimming in the direction of the polar ice pack, which we found to begin sometimes another 20+miles to the north of their observed positions. As I recall, such sightings were in mild sea states. In my experience, it is not a stretch to expect some polar bears to drown while swimming in arctic waters with sea states of or surpassing a Beaufort Sea State 5 (perhaps less depending on other factors such as the bear's condition, currents, etc.).
As for "hostile working environments" and "witch hunts" at the MMS (now BOEMRE), it was my experience that agency managers actively and subversively sought to identify, isolate, and punish life scientists (chiefly biologists and ecologists) that pushed the agency to comply with environmental laws and regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Magnusen-Stevens (Fisheries) Act, National Environmental Policy Act, etc. and various Executive Orders. Like it or not, these "laws of the land" are applicable to all federal agencies, as well as the general public. In fact, I saw MMS managers execute similar tactics against federal biologists employed at other federal agencies (i.e., NMFS). It was my experience working for the AKR that managers actively undermined several agency scientists (including myself), substantially changing environmental assessments and scientific opinions (prepared by agency scientists) part of or relating to Beaufort and/or Chukchi lease sale NEPA decision documents. These managers were not practicing, professional scientists; indeed most were engineers or non-life science based managers. They did not read the breadth of scientific studies and reports or examine the scientific data we scientists examined while drafting our assessments or opinions. And those assessments or opinions (good, bad, or neutral) would NOT have prevented managers or decision-makers from choosing among the various alternatives (preferred or otherwise) available to them (NEPA allows for such decision-making). Instead, managers instructed biologists/ecologists (such as myself) to "change our analyses/opinions" (i.e., substantially diminish reported adverse impacts), without presenting us scientific evidence to merit the desired changes! If we scientists refused (as I did) to make such changes, then they designated a lower-level manager to edit our findings and diminish the potential adverse impacts reported in the assessment. I believe management’s objective was to report potential adverse impacts that the decision maker(s) could justify without much public controversy and discourse, as opposed to justifying a "drill, baby, drill" decision when agency scientists reported significant potential adverse impacts to various natural resources, some of which were valued subsistence resources to North Slope people. Such decisions would likely become quite controversial with public discourse, and the agency might face political heat for making such a “hard” decision. As an American citizen and veteran, I understand that is part of the job…resource managers have to make hard decisions, but I insist hard decisions be made with good scientific information, integrity, and public transparency.
After several experiences where MMS managers substantively altered (i.e., substantively diminished) my environmental assessments without scientific merit, I resigned from the MMS and federal service, very much in disgust. Several other scientists I worked with in the AKR, transferred out of the Environment Groups (Assessments/Studies); most went to work for other agencies such as the USFWS or NMFS. To my knowledge, Chuck Monnett is the only wildlife ecologist still working for the AKR office, that was there when I joined the AKR in 2003. That is to say, there has been high turnover of life scientists at the AKR, chiefly because of scientific dishonesty by, or professional hostilities of agency managers (toward scientists)!
I would add that I was one of the very few agency people (not just scientists) working for the MMS that has worked onboard offshore oil & gas platforms (most have no offshore oil & gas experience). Prior to joining the MMS and working for the Gulf of Mexico Regional (GOMR) Office in New Orleans (I transferred to the Alaska Regional Office after working in the GOMR office nearly two years), I worked as a commercial diver in the Gulf of Mexico, and later, as a marine scientific diver while completing graduate studies at Texas A&M University. I also worked as an environmental monitor on an offshore platform and drilling rig exploring for natural gas inside the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. I found it peculiar that most of the people working at the MMS (Headquarters, GOMR, and AKR) had never been on an offshore drilling rig, offshore production platform, aboard an industry helicopter, or service vessel). Of the very few I met that had, most had never spent 24 hrs on such platforms, but instead only several hours for an “advance planned” industry-lead tour of the structure. These people are responsible for regulating the offshore oil & gas industry in the U.S.; it seems perplexing and ignorant, that these people (especially managers), should attempt to regulate an industry which many have never stepped foot upon their working environment, let alone spent a week observing how they actually operate!
I cannot speak substantively to the changes made at BOEMRE since their name change from MMS to BOEMRE. I know that some mid-level managers have been promoted to more senior positions with the retirement of several key managers (e.g., C. Oynes; J. Goll). However, I doubt these promotions have significantly improved scientific integrity of agency managers. Instead, I believe the changes are likely to cause agency managers to change tactics against agency scientists that critically review agency or industry documents asking “hard questions”, seeking hard data that may be inconvenient to agency paradigms, or identifying “inconvenient adverse impacts" stemming from agency decisions or actions. Nonetheless, that is the role that ethical agency scientists serve to the American public; agency scientists should not be persecuted for exercising critical thinking and scientific integrity.
This situation causes me to ask “what agency managers have been investigated for their dishonesty in manipulating agency scientists or their work? What agency managers have been placed on administrative leave for their dishonest actions regarding altering agency scientist’s works? I know of none within my former chain of command at the MMS, although I know of four that retired with full government retirement benefits; several of whom then went to work consulting for the offshore oil and gas industry.
Reply#2 - Mon Aug 1, 2011 6:49 PM EDT

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