'Big Oil' biologist defends work

ON THE INSIDE: Streever doesn't feel he has sold out.

March 7, 2010 

When Bill Streever took a job in 2000 with BP, friends, "friends of friends," academics, students and people he barely knew asked him why he had "sold out" and gone to work for Big Oil. Why would someone like him go to work for an oil company?

"I told them then, and I still tell them, you can make a difference, influence company policy, from within an oil company, more so than working from the outside," Streever said.

Streever runs BP's environmental program on the North Slope. That's 50 percent of his job. The other half is a global position as underwater sound and marine-mammal program technical manager.

In his Alaska position, he said he directs "several million dollars worth of studies on the North Slope, on topics ranging from fish in the near-shore Beaufort Sea -- 30 years of data, making this one of the longest-running data- sets on fish in the Beaufort Sea--to birds," where we are "looking at numbers of nests and nest success for species that nest on the tundra, to habitat restoration--70-plus sites that we monitor for restoration progress."

One of Streever's "North Slope studies is the Northstar bowhead whale study, that looks at the reaction of migrating bowhead whales to underwater sounds from Northstar (oil field), which are relatively low level sounds."

In the global marine mammal program position, "we are setting up a reasonably large program focused on improving our ability to mitigate for potential impacts from sound, to better understand our sounds, and to find ways to decrease our sounds."

Streever also chairs the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel in Alaska and serves on many related committees, including a climate change advisory panel.

He has had three books published, including a 2009 best seller "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places." He also has written, or co-authored, more than 50 technical papers on topics ranging from plant competition to the evolution of cave organisms to environmental economics.

Working from outside the industry, as he did before taking the BP job a decade ago, has its role, he acknowledged. "But in my opinion you can actually, hands on, make a difference that you can see, working within an oil company, as an adviser" to the people who make the decisions that matter to people concerned about the environment.

"There are a lot of cynical people out there who think the bosses at BP tell me what to do. But in reality, they aren't biologists. ... They hired me to advise them, to help them understand the situation, to help them make decisions."

Streever said "without exception" no one at BP has "ever told me 'this is where we are going to come down on an issue,'" and ignored his advice.

DIVING DAYS

Streever's professional life began when he left high school to become a commercial diver in the harbors of Maine. When he turned 18, the legal age for a commercial diver, he began diving in oil fields -- four years in the Gulf of Mexico and four in the South China Sea.

But in the 1970s and '80s, injuries were common among divers and Streever had his share of them; plus the life of a diver wasn't easy. "I decided it was time to go back to school."

He enrolled in a creative writing program, but "very quickly realized" that wasn't what he wanted, so he switched to biology and became a biologist.

Later, with a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, he compared natural wetlands and wetlands created on phosphate-mined lands, a project that led to a doctorate in applied ecology from the University of Florida.

Next, Streever moved to Australia as an assistant professor at the University of Newcastle, where he developed a research program linked to the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project.

He returned to the United States where he conducted wetlands restoration research throughout the country for the Army Corps of Engineers, research that eventually led him to Alaska and a job with the Alaska subsidiary of London-based BP.

ACCESS TO THE TOP

Streever acknowledged that working for an oil company is not a popular choice for employment among newly graduated biologists or those who are changing jobs at midcareer.

Industry needs well-informed biologists, he said.

"Rather than assuming that jobs in industry are inherently tainted, academics should look closely at how leading companies approach ecological stewardship and how they deal with environmental impacts," he wrote in a 2005 editorial.

Streever said he has access to top level managers at BP, the people in charge of the programs that affect the environment.

Another reason is that he has the resources to work on many different issues, and if he wants to tackle issues outside his own area of expertise, he can bring in experts.

AN 'AVERAGE' DAY

Streever spends half his time in Alaska and the other half working "globally" on industry offshore noise issues that affect marine life.

"On a real-time basis I like field days best, and all the experiences that go on in the field. ... These days, unfortunately, only 10-15 percent of my time is spent in the field."

Streever's days in Anchorage at BP's Alaska headquarters consist of "reviewing reports" from other scientists and stakeholders, "writing reports, editing reports" and "lots of meetings in between."

In addition to "doing the science while I am in the field I spend a lot of time listening to local stakeholders' concerns, so that I can take them back to the office, to the internal stakeholders, which are BP's employees and contractors," he said.

"The BP staff, the BP workers and the contractors often don't understand why we outlaw certain activities on the tundra and why we're worried about polar bears and ice roads. They have to cooperate with our requirements ... such as re-routing ice roads around polar bear dens. It's important they understand why."

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