Government Suppression of Science

Fig_09.02_comic depicting a gag order

During the 1980s, scientific research on caribou and other wildlife became embroiled in the raging debate over extracting fossil fuels from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The 1980 bill that created the Refuge, ANILCA, stipulated that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) conduct research on the potential impacts of drilling on the Porcupine caribou calving grounds. Beginning in the 1980s, studies conducted by agency biologists have consistently indicated that drilling the Arctic Refuge would compromise the ability of the herd to sustain itself.

This research culminated in a 1987 impact report that would share the findings to Congress and the public. However, these results threatened to impede the Ronald Reagan administration’s attempts to open the coastal plain to drilling. Rather than release the research in its original form, Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel produced an edited version of the report that ignored the data and distorted the findings of the department’s own biologists. Hodel’s “Secretary’s Recommendation” section claimed, against all evidence, that “caribou [could] coexist successfully with oil development.” After the department falsified another report on the expected impacts of oil development later that same year, FWS biologist Pamela A. Miller became a whistleblower. Using Miller as an informant, a 1988 New York Times article exposed the agency’s suppression of its own scientists, leading to a backlash against Hodel and the administration.

As the FWS continued to conduct research on the Arctic Refuge in the new millennium, pro-drilling interests in the government again attempted to supress their work. After being asked by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to prepare a report on the historic calving range of the Porcupine caribou herd, agency biologist Fran Mauer was shocked to find that George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton made significant changes before sending it to the committee. When compared to Mauer’s original report, Norton’s altered version downplayed evidence that drilling might impact caribou calving, along with other drastic omissions and changes. Like Miller, Mauer became a whistleblower when he took the story to the Washington Post.

The most recent Republican administration has continued to distort federal science on the Arctic Refuge. As Adam Federman reported in Politico, the Trump administration falsified an Environmental Impact Statement and rushed through the approval process to lease land in the Arctic Refuge.

Cartoon by Mike O'Meara.