New Science Rules for Offshore Drilling Send Mixed Message
MMS “Transparency” Mandate Riddled with Welter of Non-Release Categories
Washington, DC — The federal agency responsible for approving offshore drilling, wind and other deep-water energy developments has issued a new code of scientific conduct that appears to promote secrecy while touting the value of transparency, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The net result is that scientists working on controversial ocean-based energy projects will be unable to obtain independent review of industry submittals.
The new “Integrity and Code of Conduct for Science, Scientific Assessment, and Other Similar Technical Activities” was unveiled by the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) in an all-employee e-mail on January 8, 2010. It covers that agency’s branch for Offshore Energy and Minerals Management.
The action seems to be a reaction to abuses under the Bush administration which suppressed protests from MMS and other agency scientists about how badly environmental assessments of Arctic offshore oil plans were skewed. The failure of MMS to openly analyze suppressed scientific concerns – on issues ranging from the effect of oil spills to the introduction of invasive species – resulted in court decisions striking down agency drilling plans and schedules for sensitive Arctic tracts.
This new scientific code of conduct, however, sends decidedly mixed messages about what may or may not be released by scientists. On one hand, the code declares “Science, scientific assessment and other similar technical activities shall be conducted with the fullest transparency allowed by law, from the planning stages through completion of the work.” On the other hand, the code forbids disclosure of any information by scientists contrary to –
“agreements between MMS and its partners [i.e., oil companies] relating to use, security, and release of sensitive, confidential, proprietary, and administratively controlled, deliberative or personally identifiable information and data provided to the MMS.”
“This scientific code leaves the oil industry in charge of what information the public may see about development of the Arctic,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the vast majority of data consists of industry submittals, estimates and monitoring reports. “An MMS scientist would also have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to know what he or she could publish or disclose under this new code.”
The transmittal memo for the new code states that “MMS can now join the list of other DOI Bureaus who have established and released comparable guidelines.” Yet, the MMS code stands in stark contrast to the policy recently promulgated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, another Interior agency, guaranteeing its scientists the right to publish without any prior “policy review.” The MMS code also does not incorporate elements of President Obama’s scientific integrity policy, such as whistleblower protection for scientists.
“Significantly, MMS compiled its new ‘integrity’ code in secret, without involving the public or its own line scientists,” added Ruch. “We need a government-wide overhaul of information access to prevent industry-friendly agencies from shielding data the public should see.”
One big difference from past efforts, however, is that the new code applies not only to scientists but also to “decisionmakers” who engage in “coercive manipulation” or other misconduct. Unfortunately, the code has no enforcement mechanism to ensure that agency managers would be punished for improperly altering scientific reports.