BSEE employee claims whistleblower protection

The green squares are Shell leases.
Map of previous Chukchi Sea leases. (Image: BOEM)

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that protects whistleblowers, is supporting an Alaska employee who complained the Interior Department took shortcuts in its environmental review of Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic offshore drilling program.

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The Special Counsel’s office announced Tuesday it’s filing a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board for Jeffrey Missal. He was an environmental officer in Anchorage with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, within the Interior Department. (The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is not involved in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election.)

The events of Missal’s case date to the Obama administration, but it’s no doubt of interest to environmentalists who hope to derail future offshore exploration. The Trump administration has proposed to reboot ocean drilling in the Arctic with a series of lease sales starting as soon as next year.

Missal started complaining in 2012 that the Interior Department was violating the rules for environmental review to allow Royal Dutch Shell to go ahead with its Arctic drilling plan.

“He refused to violate the law,” Tom Devine said. Devine is the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit representing Missal. “He wouldn’t make a false statement that the regulations had been obeyed, and he started blowing the whistle on it within the chain of command at the agency.”

When those complaints didn’t produce results, Devine said Missal went to the Interior Department’s Inspector General.

“Within a couple of hours of learning Jeff had gone to the inspector general, the agency opened up a retaliatory investigation of him,” Devine said.

Devine said Missal was taken off his job and put in a position with no duties.

Some of the activity in Missal’s case occurred during an awkward period for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, as well as its sister agency at the Interior Department, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

In 2014, federal courts invalidated the environmental review of an Arctic lease sale, known as Lease Sale 193. But the lease sale had already taken place. And while the Interior Department was redoing its analysis to determine whether Lease Sale 193 was appropriate, employees of the agencies were working with Shell on its plans to explore and drill on acreage it attained in Lease Sale 193. Missal argued the department couldn’t act as though the lease sale would be affirmed when the environmental reviews weren’t complete.

Missal was fired in 2016. Devine said the Interior Department was later forced to temporarily reinstate him, though not to his old job.

“So he’s been essentially paid to fill up space for the past year,” Devine said.

In cases like this, whistleblowers sometimes seek full reinstatement to their jobs, but often they look to settle with the government for enough money to start fresh somewhere else. Devine said negotiations with the department were unsuccessful.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the department can’t comment on the matter because it’s in litigation.