Interior Dept. scientist resigned over alleged ethics breach: report

Interior Dept. scientist resigned over alleged ethics breach: report
© Thinkstock

A head scientist at the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reportedly resigned in December following concerns about the department's alleged breach of policy regarding the results of an energy study.

In a letter obtained and released by Mother Jones on Wednesday, Murray Hitzman, the associate director of USGS's energy and minerals program, resigned from his role in "protest" after the department provided the results of a study he had been working on to Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West Bureau of Land Management to move headquarters from DC to Colorado MORE days before it was made public. Hitzman in his letter called the action a "contradiction of my interpretation of U.S.G.S. fundamental science policy."

The study in question was a resource assessment of the nation's petroleum reserve in Alaska. USGS led the on-shore efforts of the joint interagency assessment.

According to an Interior press release in December, USGS estimated a mean of 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas in Alaska soil. The release called it "a significant increase​ from the 2010 resource assessment, which estimated a mean of 1.5 billion barrels of oil."

ADVERTISEMENT

The report was released on Dec. 22. Hitzman gave his resignation six days earlier, on Dec 17.

"Scientific integrity is the bedrock of the Survey and must be preserved for the Bureau to properly serve the Nation," Hitzman wrote in his letter to USGS Director William Werkheiser.

He conceded that his resignation would not change the release of the data but felt he must "register" his "protest" of the action.

Werkheiser, who has worked at the agency for more than 20 years, said that he disagreed with Hitzman's reasoning in regards to the study.

"As the Department's Scientific Integrity Officer, I do not believe that current or proposed practices for the notification of [Interior] leadership constitutes a loss of scientific integrity. I do not see the issue outlined as one of Scientific Integrity," he said in a statement. "In fact, at no time was USGS asked to change or alter any of the findings for the assessment. A major factor in reaching that conclusion is that there is a range of practices for notifying [Department of Interior] leadership of the results of energy assessments, with current and any proposed USGS practices falling within that range. In addition, USGS fundamental science practices provide some flexibility in the timing of notification to [Interior]."

Larry Meinert, a former deputy associate director of the energy and minerals program at USGS, told Mother Jones that he also left the agency in part due to pressure on scientists to violate guidelines.

“That is part of the reason why I too have now left the USGS and the public service that I was proud to perform,” he said.