Two senior U.S. Geological Survey officials have stepped down after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke demanded that they provide his office with confidential data on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska before it was released to the general public.
Murray Hitzman and Larry Meinert — who had served as the agency's associate director for energy and minerals and acting deputy associate director for energy and minerals mission area, respectively — charge that the request violated the USGS's scientific integrity policy because such commercially valuable data should not be shared in advance. Section 3c of the policy states, "Particularly sensitive results, however, such as energy and mineral resource assessments and mineral commodity reports that typically have significant economic implications are not disclosed or shared in advance of public release because pre-release in these cases could result in unfair advantage or the perception of unfair advantage."
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift, however, said Wednesday that the solicitor's department had determined that Zinke and his deputy, David Bernhardt, have to right to "review data, draft reports, or other information as it deems necessary" under the department's 1950 reorganization plan.
The dispute, which was first reported Wednesday by Mother Jones magazine, represents the latest clash between career federal scientists and the Trump administration. Scientists at Interior, as well as at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere in the government, have raised objections over issues ranging from the scrubbing of data from government websites to limits imposed on what federal scientists can say in public about their work.
Hitzman offered his resignation letter on Dec. 17, saying that he objected to the idea of providing the results of an assessment of the energy reserve's potential "several days in advance of the information's public release, in contradiction of my interpretation of U.S.G.S. fundamental science policy."
Meinert, who retired on Jan. 31, said in a phone interview that he had planned to retire anyway, but the incident "certainly increased my desire to step out the door." He emphasized that there was no indication that either Zinke or any of his deputies intended to use the information for personal gain. But he cited a long-standing practice of withholding the information until it is made widely available because when it is released, "that directly affects markets and who's interested in investing in a geographical area."
"This is the first time we've had anyone insist we want that number," said Meinert, who joined USGS in 2012. "This is simply a matter of them wanting to control information."
USGS Deputy Director William Werkheiser, who serves as Interior's scientific integrity officer, said in a statement that this principle is violated "when there is a significant departure from the accepted standards, professional values, and practices of the relevant scientific community," which he said did not happen in this case.
"I do not believe that current or proposed practices for the notification of DOI leadership constitute a loss of scientific integrity," Werkheiser said. "In fact, at no time was USGS asked to change or alter any of the findings for the assessment."
The Obama administration put half of the 22.8 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, known by the abbreviation NPR-A, off limits to drilling in 2012 but allowed energy exploration in the rest of the area.
Zinke, who signed orders in March 2017 aimed at jump-starting energy exploration on federal and tribal lands, hailed the USGS assessment when it was released on Dec. 22 as proof that more leasing could take place there. Recalling an earlier visit that year to Alaska's North Slope, Zinke said that when he asked Alaskans what they were seeking in terms of energy policy, "The response was overwhelmingly positive and the message was clear: the path to American Energy Dominance starts in Alaska," according to an Interior press release.
"Today's updated assessment is a big step toward that goal," Zinke added.
Zinke noted in his statement that USGS estimated Alaska's federal reserves onshore offer a mean of 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. "This is a significant increase from the 2010 resource assessment which estimated a mean of 1.5 billion barrels of oil," the statement added.
In December, Interior's Bureau of Land Management auctioned off 900 tracts in the reserve spanning a total of 10.3 million acres, but the sale attracted few bidders.