Arctic drilling: Alaska employee who flagged environmental review violations claims whistleblower protection

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The oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer in a dock in Seattle in June 2015. The rig was one of two drilling rigs Royal Dutch Shell had planned to use for Arctic oil exploration. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times via AP)
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.

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, Alaska with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), 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.

Complained of rules violations

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.

Fired during an awkward period

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.

Map of previous Chukchi Sea leases off Alaska’s shores. (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

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.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: World maritime body moves to ban dirty fuels in the Arctic, Radio Canada International

Finland: Finland needs ambitious CO2 emissions cuts to fight climate change, say researchers, Yle News

Norway: Norway grants drilling rights closer to protected Arctic waters, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Gazprom wants to build manmade islands for Arctic drilling, but will it clean up when it’s done?, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Too young to vote, Swedish student goes on strike for climate action, Radio Sweden

United States: Washington urged to cancel offshore plans in Arctic, Alaska Public Media

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Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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