The protest departures of two top U.S. Geological Survey officials put a spotlight on how the Interior Department employs scientific data and on the sometimes strained relations between political appointees and professional staff.
Murray Hitzman and Larry Meinert, both holders of Stanford University doctorates in geology, left USGS in the wake of what they say was an improper request for energy information from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The former USGS officials say Zinke breached scientific integrity policies when he sought information on the energy potential within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska prior to its official publication.
"Particularly sensitive results ... 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," the USGS policy states.
The policy, though, also makes reference to potential pre-release of information to "governmental agencies and nongovernmental or academic organizations under certain circumstances," and the Interior Department says top officials acted appropriately.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift today cited a determination from the department solicitor's office that the secretary and deputy secretary retain "the authority to review data, draft reports, or other information as [they deem] necessary."
William Werkheiser, the USGS acting director, added in a statement: "I do not believe that current or proposed practices for the notification of DOI leadership constitutes a loss of scientific integrity. I do not see the issue outlined as one of scientific integrity. In fact, at no time was USGS asked to change or alter any of the findings for the assessment."
Werkheiser is a 20-plus-year veteran of USGS and serves as the agency's scientific integrity officer. He is in charge while the Trump administration awaits the confirmation of former astronaut James Reilly to serve as director (Greenwire, Jan. 30).
With the two departures, first reported by Mother Jones magazine, Reilly is bound to face stiffer questions on the issue of scientific independence at his eventual hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Neither Hitzman nor Meinert could be reached this morning.
Meinert retired Jan. 31 from his position as deputy associate director for energy and minerals. Hitzman submitted his resignation letter Dec. 17, when he was serving as associate director for energy and minerals.
"Scientific integrity is the bedrock of the Survey and must be preserved for the Bureau to properly serve the Nation," Hitzman wrote, in a portion of the letter published by Mother Jones. "Though I understand my resignation will not change the data release, I feel that as head of the Energy and Minerals Mission Area I must register my protest of this action."
There are conflicting accounts of what transpired behind the scenes, but on Dec. 22, the final National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska report was formally published. It offered the Trump administration something to cheer about, estimating that the NPR-A and nearby lands could hold 17.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and more than 50 trillion cubic feet of gas (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2017).
"These assessments show that the North Slope will remain an important energy hub for decades to come in order to meet the energy needs of our nation," Zinke said in a statement.
The Mother Jones report said "it's unclear" whether Zinke or his team ended up reviewing the information prior to its public release.
Before joining USGS, Hitzman worked extensively in the field for Chevron Corp. and Anaconda Co., and between 1996 and 2016, he was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines.
Underscoring his stature within USGS, Hitzman's resignation came just five days after he testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on the subject of critical minerals.
"To ensure the nation has the best possible data on critical minerals, USGS will continue research on mineral resources [and] continue to provide information on domestic and global mineral production and consumption," Hitzman assured the panel.
Meinert formerly taught at schools including Smith College before serving as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow in two Democratic congressional offices and then joining USGS.