Interior sued over premature disclosure of reserve estimates

National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Photo by Bob Wick / BLM

A public interest group has sued the Interior Department over the premature release of highly sensitive estimates of new reserves at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is seeking a permanent injunction directing the federal agency to disclose all wrongfully withheld records related to premature release of the documents.

Litigation filed on April 11 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also asks that the court enter an order declaring that the Interior Department wrongfully withheld requested agency records from the plaintiff.

The lawsuit cites the fact that on Dec. 17, 2017, Murray Hitzman, associate director for energy and minerals for the U.S. Geological Survey, resigned after an order from Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt demanding access to NPR-A data before public release, in violation of agency ethics rules.

In his letter of resignation, Hitzman wrote that “scientific integrity is the bedrock of the Survey and must be preserved for the Bureau to properly serve the Nation. 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.”

USGS rules on Fundamental Science Practices forbid pre-release circulation of these estimates. Like agricultural commodity reports, advance knowledge could move markets or create fortunes for tipped-off speculators,” PEER said in a statement. “Bernhardt’s background is as a lobbyist and attorney for energy corporations.”

PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Feb. 23 for documents related to the incident and its aftermath, including why Bernhardt ordered the pre-release of the petroleum reserve estimates and whether Interior disseminated the data prior to their public release. The suit was filed after the Interior Department acknowledged, but otherwise ignored the FOIA request.

The lawsuit is online at https://www.peer.org/assets/docs/ak/4_10_18_OS_DOI_FOIA_Complaint.pdf?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=2f43dc8b-7be1-4e5a-b209-de5c843944af

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