The formative years of Bonnie Black’s oil and gas career were spent north of the Arctic Circle, working in remote, isolated locations, driving on ice roads under the northern lights, searching for polar bears with infrared cameras.
Black, an outdoors enthusiast, was ecstatic.
“I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had,” she says. “I’m so fortunate to have been given that opportunity, and they paid me to do it. It was truly the most amazing job.”
Roughly a dozen years later, Black’s current role at Pioneer Natural Resources Co. isn’t too shabby, either. In May 2019, she was named vice president of drilling for the company.
For much of her life, Black says, her male peers haven’t treated her differently, or, if they have, she hasn’t bothered to notice. Black grew up a bit of a tomboy in San Antonio, the daughter of a working mom and an Air Force fighter pilot. Her father taught her to hunt and fish at an early age.
“I was raised in an environment where I was never told there was something I could not do,” she says. “That was never part of the discussion.”
Before Black graduated high school in 1989, her father suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 17.
“I was always good at math and science, and he always told me, ‘Well, you should go to A&M and be an engineer.’ So, that’s exactly what I did,” she says.
At Texas A&M University, she was one of only a few women in the College of Engineering. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, specializing in environmental engineering. Her career began in Houston, where she worked cleaning up environmental messes at chemical plants, bulk fuel storage facilities and even gas stations.
After her family moved to Alaska in 2000, she joined a company as its third employee and spent the next five years growing it to a staff of 50. Black’s own entrepreneurial spirit had her pining to start her own business. After opening her own engineering and environmental consulting firm with two partners, she and her staff worked for the largest oil and gas operators in the state, including BP Plc, ConocoPhillips Co., Unocal Corp. and Pioneer.
Offered a job by Pioneer, she began working full time for the company in 2007, overseeing health, safety and environment (HSE) for its Alaska operations. She took to Pioneer’s philosophy of doing what’s right.
“When challenged with, ‘What are we going to do?’ the answer is that we’re going to do the right thing,” she says. And after cleaning up after companies’ messes, she was now in a position to prevent mistakes.
“We took a proactive stance on everything we did,” she says. “How can we responsibly develop an oil field and not affect the wildlife? How can we responsibly drill and produce oil and not put any of it on the ground?”
Working in Alaska for Pioneer was not without its challenges. Managing HSE issues associated with an unprecedented project— building and operating an offshore gravel island drill site in the Beaufort Sea— required hard work, creative problem-solving and exceptional leadership skills. The stakes could not have been higher—a spill in Arctic waters would have been international news, and evacuating an injured employee would involve complicated travel logistics in harsh weather conditions, increasing health and safety risks. Black and her team delivered impeccable results on the project’s HSE metrics.
Years later, Black makes sure that safety is paramount and that staff can feel comfortable challenging existing ways of doing business if they believe there are opportunities to do things better.
“The industry is changing, and that’s a great thing,” she says. “Today, I’ve got a lot of talented people, including a higher percentage of women, running rigs.”
Her influence expanded even more in 2020 as Black joined Pioneer’s management committee. And her role as vice president of drilling gives her the chance to develop a diverse team from the ground up.
“I take a lot of pride in what we do, because I ultimately want the oil and gas business to be seen as an environmentally sustainable business, and also one that’s accepting of all people regardless of their gender or ethnic background,” she says. “And we’re getting there. I believe leadership support—and seeing successful leaders who look like you—is key to continuing this positive trend, certainly within the industry as a whole, and definitely within our company.”
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