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Offshore drilling agency lifts suspension of Alaska scientist who wrote polar bear paper

Posted: August 27, 2011 - 10:17pm

ANCHORAGE — An Alaska scientist whose observations of drowned polar bears spurred national publicity on climate warming returned to work Friday at the federal agency that oversees offshore petroleum drilling.

Dr. Charles Monnett was suspended from his job at the Anchorage office of the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement after federal inspectors said he helped a polar bear researcher prepare a proposal even though he was the government official responsible for determining whether the proposal met minimum qualifications. He was away from his job for the last six weeks.

But advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has claimed Monnett was targeted for his 2006 paper in a scientific journal on the drowned polar bears. The account made national news, helped to galvanize the global warming movement and was cited in former Vice President Al Gore’s book and movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Bureau director Michael Bromwich has said that Monnett’s suspension was unrelated to the paper or to his scientific work.

In being ordered to return to work, Monnett was also told that he would have no role in developing or managing contracts of any kind, and would instead be in the bureau’s environmental assessment division, agency spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said Friday in an email.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General recounted in an Aug. 15 letter to Monnett that he had admitted to acting inappropriately while working as a contracting officer for the bureau. The letter said Monnett had acknowledged assisting a Canadian researcher, Dr. Andrew Derocher, in preparing the research proposal.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has said Monnett’s handling of the study was proper and conducted under standard agency procedure. Now that Monnett has been returned to work, the bureau owes Monnett an apology, executive director Jeffrey Ruch said Friday in a statement.

“This about-face shows Director Bromwich made yet another hasty, ill-considered decision which had to be walked back,” Ruch said.

In interviews with Office of Inspector General special agents early this year, Monnett was grilled about his 2006 peer-reviewed paper, which was published in the journal “Polar Biology.” He and co-author Jeffrey Gleason were asked about their methodology, how the bears had died and whether they had even seen the dead bears while conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales.

The Inspector General’s inquiry into the paper drew outrage from scientists in both the U.S. and abroad and undermined the Obama administration’s posture on climate change, Ruch said Friday.

“By assigning clueless criminal investigators to paw through the scientific peer review process, the Inspector General is generating heat but shedding no light,” Ruch said.

Monnett and Gleason wrote in the paper that they saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. They said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances.

Polar bears are considered strong swimmers, they wrote, but long-distance swims may exact a greater metabolic toll than standing or walking on ice in better weather.

They said their observations suggested the bears drowned in rough seas and high winds. They also added that the findings “suggest that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues.”

Bromwich and other agency officials are themselves under investigation by the Interior Department’s scientific integrity officer for breaking new departmental scientific integrity rules designed to protect researchers from political interference, Ruch said. The officer, Ralph Morgenweck, confirmed the inquiry in a letter earlier this month.

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