In its first public airing of an April 18 decision to deny a bid protest by CH2M Hill Cos. regarding its loss of a nearly $2-billion federal contract for Antarctica research support, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has upheld the award to Lockheed Martin Corp., despite a higher price.

GAO explains its ruling in a redacted decision posted online on May 1.

CH2M Hill and a team led by KBR Inc. were both short-listed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the potential 13-year contract. Lockheed won on Dec. 28, 2011, after a protracted procurement that began in 2008.

An NSF spokesman told ENR the Jan. 5 protest did not halt the contract transition to Lockheed, which took over from Raytheon Corp. on March 31. KBR did not protest.

Lockheed, which did not comment on the protest, will manage site facilities, infrastructure, transportation and other support for personnel at three year-round science research stations in Antarctica and other related facilities.

In a statement, CH2M Hill says it "is disappointed by the decisions made through the NSF’s selection process and the GAO’s review of our protest relative to that decision for the Antarctic Support Contract."

But adds the firm, "the National Science Foundation has been and remains an important client...through our science support, logistics, and technical project support activities for the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs related to work in the Arctic. We will continue to offer the NSF our industry leading capabilities and look forward to an ongoing positive working relationship."

GAO supported the award based on Lockheed's higher score in its overall technical evaluation, which NSF deemed most important, despite higher ratings for CH2M Hill in some subcategories.

CH2M Hill had claimed that NSF "abandoned the evaluation scheme set forth" in bid documents. GAO disagreed with the firm's challenge of its management rating and NSF's failure to consider its strong performance in past polar research support.

GAO also supported NSF's lower rating on CH2M Hill based on the risk of moving a critical data center during the contract transition. GAO says CH2M Hill "does not demonstrate that [NSF's] evaluation was unreasonable."

The protest review also supported NSF's claim that an exchange with Lockheed, which allowed the firm to revise its proposal costs, was a "clarification of a mistake" and not an improper "discussion."

GAO said NSF was justified in selecting Lockheed, despite the higher $83-million cost of its proposal. GAO dismissed CH2M Hill's claim that the difference was not adequately explained.