An Interview with Oceana’s Nancy Pyne: a Force in Climate and Energy

Oceana’s Nancy Pyne has been a core member of our powerful partner organization’s climate and energy campaign since 2013, and serves as its acting director, while continuing to manage the Grassroots Team. As the conversation from Delaware to Florida heats up about offshore drilling and seismic testing in the Atlantic, and as elected officials, business leaders, environmental organizations and concerned citizens rally to protect their coastal economies, it’s a perfect time to get inspired by Nancy’s mobilizing work to protect our ocean. Read The Moore Charitable’s interview with her here.

Oceana's Nancy Pyne. Photo (c) Patrick MustainOceana’s Nancy Pyne. Photo (c) Patrick MustainWhat are your responsibilities at Oceana?
As Acting Director for Oceana’s climate & energy campaign, I direct our team of marine scientists, lawyers, lobbyists, campaign organizers, communications professionals and research associates in our efforts to stop the expansion of dirty and dangerous offshore drilling, while promoting clean energy solutions like offshore wind. At Oceana, we use a multi-disciplinary approach to win policy change, and the campaign director develops the strategy behind each prong of our work, as well as works with each department to achieve our goals.

As Grassroots Manager, I oversee Oceana’s four campaign organizers and one associate; as a field team we cover coastal states from Florida to New York, and are in the process of expanding our team to include the West Coast. We work with allies and activists on the ground to engage them in Oceana’s U.S. campaigns, including fighting the expansion of offshore drilling, stopping Atlantic seismic airgun blasting, promoting ocean-based clean energy alternatives like offshore wind, protecting sharks from the shark fin trade, reducing by-catch by promoting responsible fishing practices, and defending our core marine conservation laws. We’ve cultivated and led an ever-growing opposition movement against Atlantic offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting, which consists of more than 125 municipalities, over 1,200 elected officials, an alliance representing 41,000 businesses, and numerous fishing groups including all three East Coast Fishery Management Councils. Our goal is to grow and deepen this movement on the East Coast, and replicate the model along the West Coast.

What is fulfilling about your job?
There are two things that I find most rewarding about my work at Oceana: my team, and the relationships we’ve forged with activists and allies on the ground. I feel very lucky to work with such a top notch group of committed, passionate and smart people. Like all teams, we go through our ups and downs, but we never waiver in our commitment to winning this fight together. We all bring a different perspective to the table, which helps drive our strategy and success. Plus, at the end of the day— we really care about each other as colleagues and friends.

I always say that I have the best job at Oceana—I get to work in HQ, with all of Oceana’s resources at my fingertips, but I get to manage the organizers who work with real people on the ground, achieving milestones and victories every week. I am immensely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish on the East Coast, but the part I find most rewarding is how many lives we’ve changed by showing citizens that they can engage in democracy, and make a difference.

What is challenging?
There are many challenging parts of the work that we do—after all, we’re up against some of the best-funded and most powerful industries in the world. I gain strength from that knowledge, however, and strive to harness it in my work. The most challenging aspect is just keeping up—there is always more work to be done, and with this Administration every day brings more challenges. Keeping a positive attitude and trying to stay even-keeled is essential, though not always easy.

Seismic airgun testing currently being proposed in the Atlantic could injure 138,000 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more, according to government estimates. Photo © Tim Calver

Seismic airgun testing currently being proposed in the Atlantic could injure 138,000 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more, according to government estimates. Photo © Tim Calver

Seismic airgun testing currently being proposed in the Atlantic could injure 138,000 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more, according to government estimates. Photo © Tim CalverWhich Oceana campaigns you are working on?
The majority of my time is devoted to stopping the expansion of offshore drilling to new areas, and preventing seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic. Right now I am also spending a lot of time networking and reaching out to new partners on the West Coast in order to lay the ground work for our soon-to-be-hired campaign organizers. As I mentioned, the field team also works on Oceana’s other U.S. campaigns like shark conservation, responsible fishing, and defending our core marine conservation laws, so I work on those issues as well.

What are the specific goals for the offshore drill campaign right now?
Our goals are big. We aim to stop the expansion of offshore drilling to the Atlantic, Eastern Gulf, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as prevent seismic airgun blasting from moving forward in the Atlantic. In order to achieve those goals, we engage elected officials, allies in the business and fishing industries, scientists, conservation groups, and volunteers at the local, state and national level, to oppose offshore oil and gas activities.

What are your proud of with regards to your campaign?
I’m running the risk of sounding like a broken record, but: the team I’ve built and managed, and the partnerships we’ve established along the East Coast. Our campaign organizers in particular had to work very hard to establish themselves in their respective communities. After many years of building one-on-one relationships, the results speak for themselves. We lead a robust coalition of allies and volunteers all committed to winning this fight AGAIN.

What is the next best thing that could happen in your campaign?
With regards to offshore exploration, while it might be hard to stop seismic companies from gaining the permits needed to conduct seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic, we are advocating for mitigation measures to drastically reduce the expected impacts. We are also exploring legal options—we need to stay nimble, and take every possible opportunity that pops up in this fight.

For offshore drilling, I am excited to engage even more people on the East Coast, and form a whole new “army” on the West Coast. We’ve shown that folks come together across the aisle when their coast is threatened by offshore drilling—even if we lose this fight, which I don’t think we will, the impacts of engaging so many folks in the decision-making process has the potential to shape the very core of our democracy.

A bit about you: Where are you from?
I’m from the Bronx, New York—my parents are still in the same apartment I grew up in. I went to college at Cornell in upstate New York, spent the year after college organizing in Hartford Connecticut, and now I’m going on seven years in Washington, DC.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a path that has lead you into ocean conservation/protection work?
My initial interest in conservation work probably traces back to my childhood trips to the Bronx Zoo. Every year of my life, my father’s Aunt Betty would take me, my sister, and a rotating cast of cousins to the zoo—looking back, I credit these trips for instilling in me a deep appreciation for wildlife and the need to conserve our natural environment.

My first foray into policy and activism came during my senior year of college. At Cornell, I studied biology with a focus on ecology and evolution, but I was able to take several courses in the policy/sociology/management spheres. In 2008, I enrolled in a course where you chose a subject in the field of “natural resources policy and process,” and traveled down to Washington, DC for 10 days to research your subject, learn about environmental policy, and interview issue experts. Incredibly, the issue I chose was offshore drilling, and several of the folks I talked to were from Oceana.

That experience studying in DC, opened my mind up to a whole new set of career options. I had previously wanted to go to graduate school to get an advanced degree in Ecology, but that course—plus a few other key ingredients—convinced me to put grad school on hold and jump right into advocacy work. It was also 2009 and Barack Obama had become president… What can I say? I caught the bug.

So after graduating, I took a position as a Field Organizer with Environment America, and I’ve been hooked on advocacy and fighting to achieve social/policy change ever since.

Did you have an AHA! moment or experience that got you to where you are?
In addition to all of the experiences I highlighted above, I think my biggest “aha moments” occurred to me in college. I LOVED learning about ecology and evolutionary biology, but it was so frustrating to study all of these incredible organisms and ecosystems and then get to the end of the semester and have the professor tell you, “and now all that’s threatened by climate change.” It was heartbreaking, but I didn’t want to be crippled by this knowledge. I wanted to get out there and do something about it. I’d say ‘08-09, was my “aha” year—everything came together and I was able to capitalize on my relationships and experiences, and jump into the field.

I’ll tell you, it was an incredible feeling when we won our fight for the Atlantic—for many, many reasons. But to look back on the eight years of my career and know that we won on the issue that inspired me to get into this field in the first place… that was a really big moment for me.

Did you have role models or heroes who were formative to where you are today?
Well, I’ve already mentioned Aunt Betty and President Obama, but there are countless other folks that I learned from along the way—too many to count, and I hate to play favorites. However, one of the experts I met in the policy course in D.C. gave me a piece of advice that’s been the mantra for my career, and to a large extent- my life. He was part of a panel of NGO reps addressing the class, and my professor asked him to offer some words of wisdom to us as we embarked on our final semester at college. His advice was “maximize serendipity.”

Who inspires you now? Why?
Again—hate to play favorites. BUT, I look to all the strong women in my life as a source of inspiration: at work, in my family, in politics.

What continues to motivate you to keep fighting for ocean protections?
At my core, I am an environmentalist and an activist. I wouldn’t know what do with myself if I wasn’t doing this work! Plus, if we don’t do it, who will? The issues that we work on are far too important to sit on the sidelines.

What is your “superhero power” when it comes to the work you do?
Even though I haven’t met many of the allies or volunteers we have on the East Coast, I have a vast rolodex in my brain. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve “weirded” people out when we meet in person and I say, “oh! You’re so-and-so! I’ve heard so much about you!” Building relationships is the key to advocacy. At the end of the day we’re all human beings—if we recognize that humanity and get to know each other, many more doors will open.

What’s your favorite body of water? Marine animal?
Is it cheating to say the Atlantic? But I will admit a big fondness for Delaware’s beaches. For marine animal, I’m going sting ray. They are SO COOL.

If you could advise readers on 3 things to do to help the ocean, what would they be?
Diet, Exercise and Democracy! Eat less meat, know where your fish are coming from and make smart choices about the seafood you’re consuming, walk and bike more (and drive less), and hold ALL your elected officials accountable: call and write them constantly, and if they don’t vote the way you want them to, vote ‘em out!