State of the Planet

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From Oil Exploration to Sustainability Specialist

ESP STudent Emily Poorvin
ESP Student Emily Poorvin

Emily is a current MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program student, originally from Oakhurst, New Jersey and joining the program from Houston, Texas. There, she worked in exploration and production within the oil and gas industry. When she graduates in 2018, Emily will leverage her applied resource recovery experience with the skills she has gained at Columbia to establish a career in energy policy.

Emily was interviewed by Kaitlin Flahive, a 2017 alumna of the MPA ESP program.

What was your experience before entering the MPA ESP program?

I am a returning student–I did my undergraduate at Tufts University in Geological Sciences and completed my first Masters, an M.S. in Geological Sciences, from Rutgers University in 2010. Back in the late 2000s, sustainability was not as popular of a concept. I remember in particular a big cover story on Time magazine about annual landscape deforestation in Brazil the size of Rhode Island to convert land for biodiesel plantations. There were a lot of competing goals in the field and it wasn’t really a feasible career path. I wanted to provide a resource for people, but I didn’t think sustainability was where I could build a career, so I moved to Houston to work in the oil and gas industry.

I worked in the upstream sector, in exploration and production, or E&P. I did two years in the new hire program rotating through different E&P groups, and then I worked for 4.5 years in a production group in the Gulf of Mexico. My job, as a geologist, was to improve the geological model of an area and analyze technical data to figure out where to drill new wells. When we began drilling, I was the liaison between the rig and the geology group. I enjoyed working on scientific challenges, exploring, and learning more about the Gulf of Mexico within a cooperative team structure.

Why were you drawn to the MPA ESP program and the field of sustainability?

I started my job a week after the Deepwater Horizon blow-out in 2010, which changed the day-to-day experience of working in oil and gas. It was a really interesting time to be in the industry and a very transformative time. Since then, regulations and costs have increased notably. Part of my role was assessing cost data, so I got to watch the costs climb over the years, and even specifically before and after the Macondo Incident. The industry introduced more safety metrics for those on the rig, introducing more processes and length into the equation. Technology has always been important in the oil and gas industry, but new developments have really altered the experience of working in the field.

Emily at her office in Houston
Emily at her office in Houston

I worked in the industry from 2009 to 2016, and really became disillusioned after the downturn in 2014. It became more about maintaining the bottom line, cash-wise, so projects were being canceled because of their economic prospects. I began looking into the sustainability world to understand other career options in the earth sciences.

Once I’d made the decision to make a career change, it took me awhile to decide to go back to graduate school. I thought a lot about what I could do, with my particular skill set, in the world of sustainability. I realized I lacked a lot of the policy background, beyond my own research and interests, and I didn’t have as much of the bigger-picture understanding. I was used to being a scientist, and having set tasks–generating and understanding information, and providing it to others to do with it as they will. I realized I wanted to be on both sides of the equation, to both understand the data and to influence decision-making. I knew I couldn’t do that with my skill set, so I decided to look at Masters programs to learn these pertinent capacities.

Specifically, I chose the MPA ESP program because of its one-year structure and scientific bend, giving me the policy background I desire without abandoning my scientific background. I really like the collaborative feel; one of the things I liked most about my old job was my team and the people I worked with. I really like the cohort structure, which is competitive in a good way, not in a toxic way. The policy and science combined is what really sold me on ESP.

What has been your favorite part of the program so far?

I really liked Professor Tjossem’s class, Earth Systems and Environmental Politics, Policy, and Management. The science classes are more aligned with my background and quite straightforward, more about learning and applying. Professor Tjossem’s class is getting me to think differently than I’m used to, and I really like that. We’re talking a lot about the idea of governance and the different aspects that go into it, the science, policymakers, other stakeholders, ultimately dissecting all the pieces that go into the policy in a very practical way. Learning through applied examples and real-world experiences is particularly helpful; it’s not just an introductory overview class and it’s not too specific on one topic, it’s a well-rounded and pragmatic approach on Environmental Policy.

What are you most hoping to get out of your time at Columbia?

Emily at Jamaica Bay during a recent ESP Ecology Field Trip
Emily at Jamaica Bay during a recent ESP Ecology Field Trip

I’m excited to learn applied policy skills and effective ways of communicating science to policy-makers and the public. I have a background in science, but specifically in geological sciences, so I’m enjoying learning more about chemistry, climatology, and all the other environmental sciences this summer. Mostly, I want to spend my year here being exposed to different ideas, expanding in a new direction.

Seeing the perception of the oil industry has been really eye-opening for me. People treat it like a monolith, but there are many roles and positions within the industry. I worked as a scientist, which was quite different from the business end, and the idea of not being an upstanding and professional scientist is absolutely foreign to me and everyone I worked with, because if the science isn’t good, the business decision based on that science isn’t good. It’s very different within the industry, depending on where you sit. Most people aren’t at the upper-level echelon making the big decisions, which is somewhat contrary to what I think most people believe.

Beyond the classes, I’m interested in joining student activity groups and developing a network of sustainability professionals. When I was working, I wasn’t a big networker and you really have to go out of your way to meet people and attend relevant lectures. I also really enjoy community service projects, so I’m hoping to participate in some projects in New York City with my ESP cohort.

What are your goals after the program?

After ESP, I’d like to stay on the East Coast and implement sustainable energy policies. I like the idea of providing a resource, and dealing with energy. The geopolitics are really interesting to me, but constantly traveling around the world to work can be really challenging. I’m still very interested in energy, but I’m looking at it through a different lens now.  I’m considering positions at the municipal or state level, applying the policy at the boots-on-the-ground level, or maybe an NGO. After spending seven years in Houston, I’m also looking forward to being closer to my family in New Jersey.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for sustainability professionals today?

In my experience, when you are implementing something new, it is particularly challenging to get a project completed because of the last step of reticence. It’s an issue in any industry, certainly at my old job, where often you can have everything set up but this reticence from the status quo prevents you from making it over the hurdle to implement your goal. I see a lot of great ideas, but the process of making these ideas work in a particular context is the biggest challenge. How do we get people to care? How do we translate this concern into action? People sometimes want to recycle, but their communities don’t have the right infrastructure to do so. It’s that last step, of making sure the follow through is complete–and it’s usually not simple.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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