BOEM staffers say rush for Arctic study undermined their work

When Shell announced it was giving up on its leases in the Arctic Ocean, it blamed, in part, the challenging regulatory climate. But an inspector general’s report released today says many government regulators who worked the Arctic lease case felt they were too rushed to provide a rigorous scientific review.

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The IG report looks at the last  Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Lease Sale 193. It was the second court-mandated do-over for the study, conducted in 2014 and 2015, long after Shell and other companies already won their leases. Several scientists and supervisors working for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in Alaska told investigators they were under such tight timelines leading up to Shell’s 2015 drilling season they were unable to do a good job on the study. At least three BOEM employees resigned or retired early over their dissatisfaction, the IG found.

An oceanographer who worked on the study told investigators she had “never worked on an SEIS with such a short timeline in her 26-year career.”

A fish biologist “stated that she believed the timeline was ‘so crushed’ that the quality of the SEIS was significantly compromised,” the report says. “She explained that she did not have enough time to review her own sections for scientific consistency, which is vital to any scientific work product.” She resigned years earlier than planned “to regain her ‘personal and scientific integrity,'” the report says.

The inspectors, though, rejected allegations that non-scientist managers at BOEM had manipulated the scientific findings. The investigators also noted that an outside agency reviewed the science in the SEIS and found it adequate.

Erik Grafe, an Earthjustice attorney who is still challenging the SEIS in court, says the report shows the agency rushed the report to allow Shell to have a 2015 drilling season.

“Scientists could not engage in basic review of their work or peer review of other’s work,” Grafe said. “Managers were concerned that legal requirements were not being met.”

Michael LeVine is an attorney for Oceana, one of the environmental groups that sued over the original Environmental Impact Statement for the lease sale. He says the IG’s lack of fault-finding doesn’t validate the approach the department took.

“The fact that the inspector general found no legal wrong-doing does not mean that a better, more complete process, might not have led to a better, more complete decision,” he says.

The investigation found that Interior Chief of Staff Tommy Beaudreau set an aggressive timeline for the SEIS. Beaudreau said he wanted it done in time for the 2015 drilling season, not really for Shell’s sake, but so that Shell couldn’t blame the department if the company decided not to proceed. Beaudreau also told investigators he knew Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and the rest of the congressional delegation, would be critical if they didn’t get the study done in a timely manner.

The senator’s spokesman, Robert Dillon, says Murkowski wanted to ensure the regulators, while protecting the environment, gave Shell a fair chance to develop its leases.

“If they needed more manpower or more hours they could have allotted more resources to the job. They could do that,” Dillon said. “They can’t blame the senator because the senator is trying to make sure that they’re doing their job.”

In response to the investigation, a deputy Interior secretary said BOEM staff worked long hours to meet their deadlines and that, despite overtime pay, employee morale suffered.