Report: Science Under Siege at Zinke’s Interior Department

(CN) – A nonprofit science advocacy group has issued a scathing rebuke to the Trump administration in general and the Interior Department and its chief Ryan Zinke in particular, saying the agency works to suppress the work of scientists to the benefit of the oil and gas industry.

In a report titled “Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior”, the Union of Concerned Scientists accuses Zinke of leading a concerted effort to suppress science, willfully ignoring climate change, silencing Interior scientists and other staff and either turning a blind eye toward or attacking the environmental laws meant to protect wildlife.

In this May 9, 2017 photo, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke enjoys a horseback ride in the Bears Ears National Monument with local and state representatives in Blanding, Utah. Native American tribes and environmental groups have filed a legal battle to stop President Donald Trump from dismantling Utah’s new national monument will face a tougher challenge than anticipated. (Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News via AP, File)

“While science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public,” Joel Clement, a senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a recent blog.

The report says the pattern of science suppression can be seen when a study will run counter to the interests of the oil and gas industry.

As an example, the report points to the suppression of a study that was set to explore the human health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining in the communities of Central Appalachia.

The report would have analyzed whether toxic dust emanating from various mining sites posed a health threat to the broader public. But the study was defunded and brushed aside, according to the report.

An email seeking comment from Interior was not returned by press time.

Similarly, a research project intent on exploring ways to enhance worker safety on offshore oil and gas rigs was shut down and shelved in 2017, as was a report that sought to more closely inspect the effects of a sulfide-ore mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

It’s not just the suppression of agency-led scientific studies, but several scientists – particularly those who study the effects of climate change – complain that the newly instituted review of block grants has led to unfair political interference.

“Many scientists, primarily those working on climate change, have reported that it has delayed their grant funding, and researchers are delaying or canceling plans to hire Ph.D students and interns,” the report states.

The study accuses Zinke of removing all references to climate change from agency literature, particularly from the five-year strategic vision where addressing potential impacts to the national park system and other lands under the purview of Interior had been a staple over the previous decade.

The report accuses Interior of covering up a comprehensive study about how sea level rise will affect the various national parks, while noting a major study produced in September 2018 on the national park system’s vulnerability to rising temperatures by the agency’s principal climate scientists Paul Gonzalez is not hosted on the department’s website.

The union also accuses Zinke of barring the agency’s career scientists from talking to the press and attending conferences in their field,and creating a hostile work environment to intimidate them into compliance with the pro-energy development orientation of the Trump administration.

“Travel to scientific conferences has been restricted and scrutinized,” said an anonymous U.S. Geological Survey scientist in response to a survey conducted by the union in early 2018. “Travel to research sites has also been restricted. Red tape has increased dramatically.”

Finally, the report notes the well-documented instance of Interior reducing habitat productions for the greater sage grouse as an example of the Interior’s hostile attitude to endangered wildlife.

Specifically, the Bureau of Land Management approved a massive natural gas extraction project in the middle of sage grouse territory in Colorado and Wyoming despite governors from both states saying the project was counterproductive, according to the report.

“It is a desecration of the concept of public service for Zinke to ignore science aimed to protect the public’s best interest, and an insult to the taxpayers who pay his salary and those of his political colleagues,” Clement said. “Zinke won’t be around forever, but he has filled the ranks of political appointees at DOI with like-minded industry lobbyists and climate deniers, so things are not likely to change at Interior anytime soon unless Congress, with a vocal public behind it, insists on transparency, scientific integrity and immediate climate action.”

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