INTERIOR:

How shoddy science almost led one agency to use flawed map in Keystone XL review

A year ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service was poised to use a scientifically flawed range map for the American burying beetle during a preliminary assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline's effect on the endangered insect.

The map would have shrunk the insect's range by 25 percent in Oklahoma, using spatial models -- rather than county lines -- to determine the habitat. But the map was never used in the Keystone assessment or any other agency action, thanks to a scientific integrity complaint.

News of that complaint became public last week, when the Interior Department's inspector general released a "management alert" referring to the retaliation against the employees who questioned the range map and an unrelated data collection (E&E Daily, Aug. 1).

FWS officials have confirmed a "loss of scientific integrity" in both instances and scientific misconduct in the creation of the beetle's range map. FWS Director Dan Ashe has said the two supervisors involved were disciplined for those findings, but the agency is still determining appropriate action for the supervisors' retaliation against the whistle-blowers (Greenwire, Aug. 2).

Details on the nature of the scientific integrity findings are still limited. Interior has publicly released only summaries of the cases. But an FWS official agreed to speak on background with Greenwire this week about the scientific integrity failings of the range map for the burying beetle.

In the heated controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, the American burying beetle is just one battle of many. The proposed pipeline route -- which would run from Canada's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries -- winds its way through the beetle's habitat, and FWS determined in May that a pipeline section in Nebraska would adversely affect the population. It directed TransCanada Corp. to relocate the insects if the project moves ahead.

The problems with the Oklahoma range map came almost one year before that decision and did not affect findings in Nebraska. But it sheds light on how Interior's relatively new scientific integrity process forestalled what could have become a much more serious issue.

In the summer of 2012, several FWS employees unveiled a new range map for the American burying beetle that they claimed better represented the insect's habitat. They used a new model -- published in a previous paper by other scientists -- to generate an area that comprised about 12.6 million acres, rather than the previous 17 million acres.

Within weeks, a complaint was filed alleging 29 violations of the scientific integrity policy. FWS officials say they withdrew the map immediately. If they had not, it would have been used to determine whether further surveys needed to be conducted on the Oklahoma portion of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Instead, the agency used a previous map, which showed the pipeline would transect one of the counties in the beetle's range, triggering a more thorough review.

It remains unclear whether the revised map -- had it not been retracted -- would have triggered the same review.

But it would have been friendlier to industry on the whole. The new map cut the beetle's range by about 4.5 million acres, or more than 25 percent. In a published article on the new map, the authors said the decreased range would lead to "greater precision for conservation of the [beetle], more targeted conservation efforts, and reduced costs to other federal agencies and industry that are required to have minimal impact to this endangered species under the [Endangered Species Act]."

Their work, however, suffered from several problems. A scientific review panel found that the FWS employees had given "improper consideration" to the reservations from the creator of the original model. The employees also applied the model incorrectly; among other things, they used nonrandom data when the model assumed random data.

The peer-review process they used also did not meet government standards. Specifically, it violated standards "ensuring independence and impartiality," according to the FWS official.

The official declined to comment on whether the authors of the new map purposely violated such standards to create a more industry-friendly map.

In the end, however, FWS released a habitat conservation plan that included a "conservation priority area" that overlaps the pipeline in several places. And the revised map -- along with the accompanying article -- was rescinded.

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.