Interior Department misrepresented scientific opinion on moratorium, Inspector General report reveals

“Scientific misconduct” within key federal agencies has given rise to regulatory policies that burden an already beleaguered economy and erode the public trust, Sen. David Vitter warns in a letter addressed to the White House.

At issue is a report from the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) Office of Inspector General (OIG) that describes how the agency manipulated and altered a 30-day report from the National Academy of Engineers. Sen. Vitter and several House colleagues, including Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), called for the OIG investigation in response to allegations that officials with Interior had deliberately misrepresented scientific opinion on the merits of the deepwater drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve seen facts manipulated and science ignored across the administration while they’ve developed policies with huge negative effects on the economy,” Vitter said. “We want the public to be aware of the administration’s misconduct, but we also want agencies to be transparent and explain their methods.”

The letter from Vitter, co-authored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), is addressed to John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor.

“The IG investigation showed that not only had Interior violated the Information Quality Act (IQA), but there was direct involvement by the White House, specifically Carol Browner, to manipulate the summary documentation in violation of peer-review protocol,” the letter says. “…The investigation revealed blatant political influence, on what should have been an independent scientific assessment, to inaccurately represent the views of a particular team of scientists.”

In response to the explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, Interior declared a moratorium on deepwater drilling, which it extended for six months that following May 27 in tandem with the 30 day report. An engineer who was asked to participate in the peer review process of the report’s recommendations sent a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Vitter and Sen. Mary Landrieu (R-La.) making it clear that he and his colleagues did not officially endorse the moratorium. The letter was co-signed by other engineers and reads in part as follows:

“A group of those named in the Secretary of Interior’s Report, “INCREASED SAFETY MEASURES FOR ENERGY DEVELOPMENT ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF” dated May 27, 2010 are concerned that our names are connected with the [deepwater drilling] moratorium as proposed in the executive summary of the report. There is an implication that we have somehow agreed to or “peer reviewed” the main recommendation of that report. This is not the case.” (emphasis is included in the original letter)

Luke Bolar, a spokesman for Vitter, identified White House Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner as a key figure responsible for manipulating and distorting the scientific language.

“Carol Browner is one of the leading voices of junk science,” he said. “She was the one who changed the summary language just hours before the 30 day review was received and added a sentence to make it appear as the engineers endorsed the moratorium when they hadn’t. That’s why we needed the IG investigation.”

Early in his term, Obama issued a “Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity” that emphasized the importance of sound science in shaping and directing public policy, Vitter, Inhofe and Issa point out in their letter to the White House.

“Public trust in federal scientific work is waning and the academic community has gone so far as to call the situation a crisis,” the letter says. “Accordingly, we request that you provide us with an accounting of your activities in response to serious questions raised about the quality of science utilized by this Administration.”

The letter concludes with a series of questions put to Holdren.

1.      When this IG report became public, who did you contact at Interior to discuss scientific integrity and allegations that Interior violated peer reviewed protocol?

2.      Did you speak directly with Secretary Salazar or anyone else identified in the IG report?

3.      What was the content of your conversations with the President and Carol Browner, as well as any other White House officials?

4.      What firewalls did you put in place at the White House to prevent future political influence from interfering with an independent scientific report?

5.      What actions were taken at both Interior and the White House, or otherwise government-wide, as a direct result of your efforts following the IG’s findings?

6.      What are your suggestions for strengthening the Information Quality Act in light of this incident specifically?

7.      What are your suggestions for strengthening the Information Quality Act in light of this incident?

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.