University of Alaska Scientist Rick Steiner Loses Federal Grant Funding After Criticizing Oil Industry

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University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner says he’s lost his federal grant funding for being an outspoken critic of the oil industry. For years, Steiner has criticized what he considered irresponsible actions by the oil industry, beginning with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Last week, a university lawyer rejected a claim to overturn a decision to pull Steiner’s $10,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA. In its decision, a university lawyer wrote if a recipient of grant funding "uses his position and his time to, for example, advocate for or against a particular development project, the funding agency may have a legitimate concern." [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A professor at the University of Alaska has lost his federal grant funding for being an outspoken advocate for environmental protection. Rick Steiner, a prominent marine conservation specialist, has worked at the University of Alaska for the past three decades. For years, he has criticized what he considered were irresponsible actions by the oil industry, beginning with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Last week, a university lawyer rejected a claim filed on behalf of Steiner to overturn a decision to pull his $10,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA. Steiner had received the money as an extension agent in NOAA’s Sea Grant program.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Steiner says university administrators caved under pressure from NOAA to silence his public criticism of an offshore Arctic oil development. In its decision, a university lawyer wrote if a recipient of grant funding, quote, "uses his position and his time to, for example, advocate for or against a particular development project, the funding agency may have a legitimate concern." In addition to pulling the grant funding, the university moved Steiner’s office against his wishes into the main Marine Advisory Program office.

We called both NOAA and the University of Alaska to invite them on the program. They both declined to be on, but they did provide us with statements. Before we go to that, let’s go first to the man at the center of the storm, Rick Steiner. He joins us from Anchorage, Alaska.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Steiner. It’s good to have you with us.

I wanted to start off with this ruling by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER. In its decision, the university cited pressure from the grant agency NOAA — that’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — to silence your public critique of the oil industry’s Arctic development plans. Explain exactly the stand you took, the news conference you held, Professor Steiner.

RICK STEINER: Good morning, Amy and Juan. It’s great to be with you again.

This is a very simple issue, actually. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, as you said, pressured the university administrators to terminate my grant funding, which I’ve had for thirty years here in Alaska. Many people have. And as a result of that, the university, instead of standing up to them and doing the right thing and saying, “No, we don’t do business that way; we have something called academic freedom for our faculty,” they caved and did terminate that federal grant funding. They covered it for one year with other state funds, but that’s irrelevant.

The bottom line issue here is that the University of Alaska really runs on oil money. I’ve been somewhat critical of what I consider to be irresponsible oil company proposals and projects and activities in Alaska, and thus the university punished me for it. And I think the bottom line is, there should be protections within academia for faculty to seek and teach the truth without fear and without favor. That’s what the whole concept of academic freedom is, ultimately. And that failed here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rick Steiner, when you say the University of Alaska runs on oil money, could you explain?

RICK STEINER: Sure, yeah. Oil companies — you know, oil is big business here in the last frontier, as many people know, and it’s — you know, there have been hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of economic activity in Alaska over the last thirty years from oil and gas. Eighty-five percent of the state budget here is from oil revenues. And the state gives the university $300 to $320 million a year, so at least 85 percent of that is oil money.

In addition to that, oil companies give a lot of direct donations to the university, and $30, $40, $50 million over the past ten years. Tomorrow morning they’re opening a new science building on the UAA campus here with the name ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building on it, in honor of the tens of millions of dollars that the oil company has given the university.

But beyond that, it’s the sort of political paradigm in Alaska that everything oil and gas is good, and anyone who criticizes oil and gas is either marginalized or punished. And that’s precisely what the university has done here. They know what they’ve done is wrong. And I think their spin machine is working overtime to try to spin this another way.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I read one article that said recently that ConocoPhillips and BP gave about $7 million in new donations to the university to fund doctoral researchers in climate change, as well as about a dozen university professorships?

RICK STEINER: Yeah. There was an agreement when ARCO and BP — when ARCO went away and there was this merger years ago, about probably ten years ago now, that these companies, part of the settlement in that case, they would start providing the university funding.

And leaving aside whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, the bottom line is there has to be a firewall between that funding and any political repression of faculty free speech. And that’s clear. University policy states that. The American Association of University Professors’ policies on academic freedom state that very clearly. And this is what failed here.

There is no question, but what — the university took an adverse administrative action against me, solely because of my public comments that were critical of an oil and gas lease sale in Bristol Bay, Alaska. They didn’t like that. NOAA didn’t like that at the time. That was under the Bush administration. And they terminated the federal funds to it. And everything else aside, that in and of itself constitutes a violation of the most fundamental principle of what a university is, and that’s free expression.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, we invited both NOAA and the University of Alaska to join us on the program, but they declined. NOAA director of communications, though, Janna Goldman, sent an email that said NOAA "did not tell the University of Alaska to terminate” the funding and could not "elaborate on the university’s internal decisions." However, she did not respond to a specific question of whether NOAA had expressed concern to the university over Professor Steiner’s actions.

We also reached University of Alaska spokesperson, Kate Ripley on the phone. This is what she had to say about the decision to pull the NOAA Sea Grant funding.

    KATE RIPLEY: NOAA had expressed some concerns that under the parameters of that grant, which is Sea Grant, that Sea Grant MAP agents, Marine Advisory Program agents, are to be neutral brokers of information. And so, NOAA expressed some reservations about whether or not this particular professor was being a neutral broker of information. And so, the university, you know, decided, well, you know, in looking — and it’s a collaborative process with faculty, looking at workload and what it is you’re doing, and it was determined by the grant administrator that it was more appropriate for that tenth month of his contract to be just funded out of university funds. So he saw no reduction in pay. The grant — you know, the funding agency said, “Hey, this guy doesn’t look like he’s working within the parameters of the grant,” and internally the university said, “Well, OK, we’ll make up the difference.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Steiner, your response? And then, tell us about the news conference that you held.

RICK STEINER: Sure. Well, obviously, the university’s spin machine is working overtime on this. And I think they know what they did is wrong. And I think there’s going to be a very healthy conversation about all this, not just in Alaska, but nationally, about the rights of a grant-making institution and what they can impose as conditions on grants to university faculty throughout the nation.

The question is, is it correct, is it right, that a grant-making institution can impose a gag order along with a grant to a university faculty anywhere in the nation, or not? If a federal agency can do that, then why can’t Exxon or Shell or BP or Merck or Pfizer? The answer is, of course, there is no reason.

Then you have to ask the question, how does that jive with the university’s academic freedom policies or where faculty are supposed to be protected to seek and teach and speak their truth without fear and without favor, without fear of reprisal? The university certainly took an adverse administrative action against me for speaking up, speaking my truth.

This argument that I was somehow an advocate, well, guilty as charged. Yes, I do advocate. I advocate for environmental sustainability and conservation, and that’s where it rubs up against some very strong political forces here in Alaska, and probably other places, as well. But so do all faculty that get Sea Grant and NOAA funding. They advocate all the time. It’s just that their advocacy is very mainstream, within the political parameters that are considered acceptable in Alaska, and that’s for commercial development of marine resources, for instance.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Rick Steiner —-

RICK STEINER: But when you start advocating for conservation -— sure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Rick Steiner, the faculty union filed a grievance with the university in terms of what they did to you. What was the response to that grievance?

RICK STEINER: Right. The grievance process has been going on now since March, so half a year. And every level of the way, within the internal university administration, has been a denial, from the provost, the chancellor, and now the president’s level. And interestingly, the president of the University of Alaska has some national reputation as being a staunch defender of academic freedom, but he has never had to make an actual decision to either protect or object to academic freedom until this case. And what we just found out a few days ago is he ran for cover and did the wrong thing. So I think they know they’ve done the wrong thing here, and this really sets a cloud up over the entire university, where faculty now do not feel comfortable in speaking and teaching their truth openly.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor —-

RICK STEINER: They know that they can suffer reprisals. Yeah?

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Steiner, I wanted to ask you about the latest information of the Obama administration giving conditional approval to Shell Oil’s plan to explore two of its leases -—


AMY GOODMAN: — in the Beaufort Sea next summer and fall — opposition from environmental groups — risking the pollution in one of the most remote regions of North America and also native villagers.

RICK STEINER: Thanks. The Obama administration, against the objections of part of the federal agency NOAA, went ahead and approved exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea, you know, ten to twenty miles offshore there for the first time just a couple of days ago. We questioned the rationality of that. Even some of the federal agencies questioned the sensibility of all that.

The lease sale that this particular episode with me and the university and NOAA began with was in Bristol Bay, Alaska. It’s certainly one of the most productive chunks of the world ocean anywhere. There’s more marine mammals and fishery value there and some very highly threatened, protected species. And even the Minerals Management Service said you can’t find a more productive and important piece of the world ocean than this very area that they are planning to do an oil and gas lease sale. And then NOAA says — NOAA was the one a year ago complaining about my criticisms of that lease sale, and now here they’ve come full circle just last month and said, “You know, this lease sale shouldn’t go forward, because it’s too precious of a marine environment, and it’s too risky.” So it took awhile for them to get there, and it took a new administration, so I think they’re going to pull that lease sale off the table and not do it. That’s my guess and my – certainly my hope.

AMY GOODMAN: The one that you were critical of, that you held —-

RICK STEINER: The Arctic leases, though -—

AMY GOODMAN: The one that you were critical of, the one that you held a news conference against.

RICK STEINER: Precisely. And that was Bristol Bay, or also called North Aleutian Basin. And I was asked by several colleagues in the environmental community to join them for a press conference. I did. And we were critical of a Shell-sponsored University of Alaska Sea Grant conference about how oil and fish can coexist in these — in Bristol Bay, offshore oil and fisheries.

And here now — and NOAA was critical of me at the time. We have the documentation where they did pressure the University of Alaska administrators, and they said, “We need to terminate his funding, his federal funding.” And they did. And now here, a year later, they have come up with an official comment and position on the Bristol Bay lease sale and saying it’s too risky, it’s too precious of an environment, it shouldn’t go forward. They are, however, going forward with the Arctic sales, although Secretary Salazar is reconsidering which of those to do and how many and how soon, so...

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Steiner, I want to thank you for being with us, as you speak to us on, what, the twentieth anniversary also of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Rick Steiner, marine conservation specialist, professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, recently lost his federal grant funding, and his office is being moved to place him under closer university supervision, speaking to us from Anchorage, Alaska.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to stay on the environment. We’ll talk about toxic waters throughout the United States. Stay with us.

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