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
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