Bob Swenson prefers the 'eye of the storm'

Posted: Tuesday, January 05, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Bob Swenson can see the storm coming, and he's getting ready to ride it out.

On Dec. 28, when the state geologist was picked by Gov. Sean Parnell to lead the effort for an in-state natural gas pipeline, he had a busy day on his hands.

"Once it was announced, I wasn't truly ready for that," he said. "I had the phone ringing and I was doing TV interviews - while the phone was ringing.

"But I kind of expected all that. It's a big issue and people are going to be interested in how we move forward."

In resource-rich Alaska, geology is politics. But to Swenson, geology is still just geology. If you get the facts, that's what matters.

That's why the 53-year-old prefers to stay in what he calls "the eye of the storm," the calm center where only hard evidence has value, and away from "the lunatic fringe."

At first glance, the Montana-raised rancher who loves the quiet life seems out of place in the middle of a statewide hot-button issue.

Swenson begins most mornings at 4 a.m. by cracking open a nonfiction book and finishes most evenings strumming a guitar - sometimes joined by his college-bound daughter, Nicole.

An avid outdoorsman, he used to be more adventuresome with his free time, skiing in the backcountry and flying his Cherokee 140 to remote areas for hunting and fishing.

And when he could make it down to the coast, there was a sailboat waiting for him.

"That's been a real joy for me in the past 15 years, just get out and turn off all the power," he said, though he regrets that his sailboat is dry-docked in Homer for an indefinite break.

Nowadays, he's more of a homebody - tinkering with his tractor and other vehicles in the garage and doing blacksmith work. The Cherokee is gone, though he hopes to take up flying again.

Swenson's latest kick is trying to create a sustainable lifestyle.

"If we have a meal that's 100 percent us, that's a really good meal," he said.

Much of that meal would come from his expansive garden, which is surrounded by an enormous metal fence that was handmade by the resident blacksmith.

"I certainly don't have to worry about moose getting into the garden," said Patricia Heiser, his partner of four years. "When he does things, they're done right."

Such is the case with Swenson's home, as he installed the plumbing and electrical wiring on his own and with the nearby soccer field and neighborhood driveways he clears regularly with his orange tractor ("my favorite toy," he called it in an e-mail).

All of this nearly makes up for the fact that he works a desk job. Nearly. Throughout the years, his time in the field has dwindled to virtually nothing.

"Oh gosh, that's a little bit of a sore point," he said.

Swenson would rather be working with his hands and doing the grunt chores. In that sense, he's still more of a rancher than a scientist.

He gave up the ranch life more than two decades ago, when he'd been bucked off enough horses to know that he wouldn't be healthy by the time his first-born, Eric, grew up.

"I said, 'I've broken enough bones already, so by the time I'm 40 I won't be able to walk well."'

Swenson began collegiate studies in oceanography. He soon discovered geology was his passion.

He likened the profession to being a detective - looking for clues about the history of the Earth. And as much as he enjoys his tractor, garden and handiwork, science is his main hobby.

Why else would he take time off for a trip to the Nevada desert, stopping by Las Vegas just for showers and food?

"Whenever we go on vacation, we bring home lots of rocks," said Heiser, who is a professor in the geology department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Swenson came to Alaska in 1991 to do research for Arco, beginning a career with oil companies that was highlighted with his work on the Cosmopolitan project - an oil and gas production unit in the southern Cook Inlet area. It took six years to begin work because of environmental concerns and coal-laden rock that hinders drilling.

After a brief gig doing small exploration projects with his father, he began working for the state of Alaska in 2005 and was promoted to state geologist the next year.

The vast and diverse geology of Alaska has presented Swenson with everyday challenges, but he knows his biggest trial will come with in-state gas line research.

When looking at Alaska's resources, the number of options can be overwhelming.

"We're in a candy store," he said. "We really are. This is a geologic candy store."

Because of Alaska's abundance, he expects people to call for an immediate solution, something he is determined not to hastily patch together.

"Until I understand and until I have all the facts on the table, I'm not saying or doing anything," he said.

Making matters more confusing are the layers of political issues - from the local to national levels - that are entwined with creating an in-state gas line.

Swenson said all he can do is keep his eye on his sole objective - bringing affordable, locally produced gas to Alaska markets.

Heiser has little doubt he'll stay focused, though he might rub some people the wrong way because of it.

"He makes some people nervous because he has a lot of integrity," she said. "He just sees right through (lies)."

That integrity is likely to be called into question as the in-state gas line project progresses, but Swenson isn't worried about the microscope his work is about to be placed under.

"If you can't handle the scrutiny of other scientists or other people, then maybe you're not doing your job," he said. "There's going to be people who are going to be very impatient and frustrated, confused and all of that.

"But that's the storm, and there's nothing I can do about that."

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