The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Education for Sustainable Development,
and Related Global Issues

Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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Truth and Consequences on the Last Frontier

Richard Steiner
Professor of Marine Conservation
University of Alaska - Anchorage

Originally published in Pacific Fishing Magazine,
January 2010
Reprinted with Permission of the Author

Preface as shown in the original article

Professor Rick Steiner who, since before the Exxon Valdez disaster has been known as a critic of the oil industry and a defender of marine conservation, has resigned from the University of Alaska. The university had stripped him of a NOAA grant because of his outspoken opposition to offshore oil development in the Bristol Bay region. Steiner filed a grievance and, in October, lost. He then resigned. Here’s why.

One of the first things I learned as a kid was to tell the truth, and one of the next things I learned was that some people just don’t want to hear it.

As a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska for 30 years, my job was to seek and teach the truth, and put science to work in ocean conservation.  But, in a state that has become so dependent on oil money, telling the truth about the risks of oil is itself risky business.

University administrators had warned me for years not to “advocate” conservation, and not to “criticize state government as that is where we get our money.”    As a tenured professor, I ignored such warnings, thinking that I was protected from retaliation.  But for telling my truth about the risks of offshore oil, retaliate they did, and I recently was forced to resign.

Since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, I’ve worked around the world on risks and impacts of oil in coastal environments.  So, when asked by conservation colleagues to offer my perspective on the proposed offshore oil and gas lease sale in Bristol Bay, I did so without reservation.  I signed a letter and joined a press conference challenging a 2008 symposium sponsored by Shell Oil and Alaska Sea Grant, designed to show “how oil and fish can co-exist” in Bristol Bay (North Aleutian Basin).  We felt the symposium asked the wrong questions, had the wrong participants, and advocated a pro-drilling decision.

And here is the truth I then spoke concerning “how oil and fish can co-exist” in Bristol Bay:  They can’t.

The area proposed for offshore drilling is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, supporting some of the most abundant populations of marine mammals, seabirds, crab, bottom fish, and salmon anywhere.  The combined impacts and risks of noise, habitat damage, operational discharges, pipelines, terminals, and tanker traffic are enough reason to halt the project.

Add to this the substantial risk of a catastrophic spill, as in the recent platform blowout off northwest Australia, and the no-lease decision is a “no-brainer.”  Some ocean areas are too precious to expose to such risk.  Bristol Bay is such a place, and we said so.

After I raised these concerns, university administrators met with senior officials at NOAA headquarters and agreed to punish me by terminating the Sea Grant funding I’d had for 30 years.  They said they “had a problem” with me and my environmental “advocacy,” and that I could “cause problems nationally.”

A university administrator criticized me for the concerns I raised about the Shell/Sea Grant conference and informed me that because I “regularly take strong public positions on issues of public debate,” my NOAA grant would be terminated. Their offer of state funding for one year was a clumsy, irrelevant distraction.  The problem is not the money, but rather the adverse action itself.

As far as we know, this is the first time ever that a university faculty member lost federal funding because of public comments.  As for “advocacy,” all faculty advocate, but the unspoken rule here is that it is OK to advocate industrial development but not conservation.  The Shell/Sea Grant oil conference was a perfect example.  The University of Alaska receives, directly and indirectly, about $300 million per year in oil money, and obviously that kind of money buys considerable favor and influence.

Ironically, when NOAA released its new position on offshore leasing last fall, it had come full-circle and agreed with the concerns we raised a year earlier, concluding that the Bristol Bay lease sale should be canceled because the region was too precious to place at risk from offshore oil development.

Nevertheless, a deliberate decision had already been made in the university to force me out. (As an added incentive they terminated my office lease.)  It was clear I could no longer do my conservation work freely within this repressive university environment.  Thus, the only option to continue my work was to resign.

Free speech is unequivocal – either you have it, or you don’t.  What we’ve learned from my case is that at the University of Alaska, when it comes to criticisms of certain powerful industrial interests, we don’t.  That the university is pandering to its political and financial benefactors by punishing me for speaking a truth, which these benefactors consider threatening, is a stinging indictment of the integrity of this institution.

And while university administrators may be getting high-fives down at the Petroleum Club and the well-oiled Alaska Legislature for what they did here, they fail to appreciate the dark cloud their cowardly act leaves over the university and state.

NOAA, university administrators, and their industry puppet-masters know what they did her is wrong.  Instead of celebrating, they would be well advised to heed a time-tested lesson of history – as the powerful seek to silence truth and dissent, truth and dissent only become more powerful.  And that may be the ultimate reward for their shameful betrayal of public trust in my case.

© 2009 Richard Steiner

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Richard Steiner has taught marine conservation at the University of Alaska for 30 years. His primary focus is international conservation extension, and his expertise includes sustainable development, conservation, and international environment/development issues.

He has been the Alaska statewide conservation specialist 1996–present (Anchorage), and marine advisor for Prince William Sound 1983–1996 (Cordova) and arctic Alaska 1980–1983 (Kotzebue). He consults on commercial fisheries, international conservation, and oil/environment issues. He has been involved in all aspects of Exxon Valdez oil spill.

His recent opposition to offshore oil development in the Bristol Bay region apparently has been inconvenient to powerful vested interests, and his current situation brings to mind Voltaire's dictum: ""It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong."

Professor Steiner can be contacted at afrgs@uaa.alaska.edu.


University of Alaska - Anchorage

Pacific Fishing

Exxon Valdez

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

Sarah Palin's record on environment is abysmal, by Rick Steiner, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7 September 2008.

University of Alaska Scientist Rick Steiner Loses Federal Grant Funding After Criticizing Oil Industry, Democracy Now, 22 October 2009.

Bristol Bay drilling: Truth and Consequences on the Last Frontier, by Rick Steiner, Pacific Fishing Magazine, January 2010.

"Civilization in its present form hasn't got long."

James Lovelock


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