Spoiled by Oil

New life is pulsing through streets across the globe as hundreds of thousands of young people march in solidarity against climate change inaction. Earlier this month, the climate craze enveloped Austin as well. UT students, myself included, and concerned citizens from across the state congregated at the Tower before trekking to the Texas State Capitol Building. But, perhaps we did not need to trek at all to mount a protest against environmental malefactors. Perhaps, we should have directed our passion toward campus. 

Last year, the UT System made national headlines for surpassing Yale with the second-highest endowment in the country, valued at $31 billion. This growth paved the way for UT Austin to unveil its acclaimed recent financial aid plan that makes undergraduate tuition free for all students from families that make less than $65,000 per year. Unfortunately, this achievement is stained by crude oil. A significant fraction of the university’s fortune comes from UT property that is leased to oil and gas companies for development in the Permian Basin oilfield, a massive region marked by extremely unhealthy amounts of methane leakage, hydraulic fracking, and a multitude of other environmentally detrimental activities. In fact, land owned by the UT system alone was accountable for emitting the warming equivalent of 11.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over a six-year period in the form of methane leakage. Ironically, a portion of the endowment goes to research initiatives that focus on cutting-edge sustainability practices, a cause that the university is proud of. If the UT System wants to be as environmentally friendly as it markets itself, however, it must sever its ties with the fossil fuel industry soon and look for cleaner sources of income.

The Forty Acres stands to benefit from emulating the more eco-friendly investment model used by Harvard, the only university that boasts an endowment larger than UT’s. Rather than investing in low-hanging fruit like fossil fuel land leases, UT could diversify its portfolio by seeking investment opportunities abroad and turning to sources such as private equity like Harvard does. Sinking money into private equity options, such as venture capital and real estate, and investing in various foreign markets would minimize the UT System’s unhealthy dependence on volatile domestic oil and gas markets, therefore ensuring the endowment.

It must be acknowledged, however, that this shift in paradigm could affect people in more ways than we can think of. As a rural West Texas native, I worry that the parents of my hometown friends would be at risk of unemployment since many of them work on the same oil rigs that finance the University. As a low-income student, I worry that my financial aid would be jeopardized if adjusting funding sources proved less lucrative than the current approach. Despite this, the reputation and dignity of UT Austin and the wellbeing of the planet necessitate that the University changes its activities. While the oil money may be going towards a respectable institution and purpose, the ends in no way justify the means. 

The Forty Acres has a moral responsibility to find virtuous sources of income because, as a top-tier, nationally-leading public university, more than just “The Eyes of Texas” are upon us. I pride myself on being a student of a university willing to acknowledge the challenges our environment faces and their origins, but UT’s toxic addiction to cheap oil and gas profits detracts from its environmental consciousness. The UT system must take a leading stand on firmly denying the grounds for the future growth of oil and other unsustainable practices — only through such definitive action can it send a faithful message to its population and the surrounding community about its commitment to the environment.

Categories: Environment

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2 replies »

  1. This is a great article if and only if the facts are true. One must remember that economics drives pretty much everything in the world. If it is not economically feasible, it is not feasible period.
    At this point in time fossil fuel, (oil, gas and coal) is the cheapest energy source for the world. It will not be replaced until something comes up that is economically feasible.

    Such viable alternate energy sources include, but is not limited to, wind, solar, geothermal, wave, etc. Noticed that I did not mention nuclear.

    At this point in time nuclear energy is completely safe, reliable and inexpensive however it is politically unacceptable.

    A great alternative could and should be something like generation 4 nuclear power generation. This is a possible and viable solution. However, this will probably not be viable for the next 50 to 100 years. During that time we do have plenty of fossil fuel to keep things going.

    Cleaning up our act in the fossil fuel industry (I.e. eliminate flaring, leakage, inefficient burning, incomplete combustion, etc.) is a must. But this will not have a major impact until large countries, i.e. China, India, Russia, etc. are able and willing to take part. That will not happen in today’s geopolitical world.

    Great article great information, however not feasible. Your job, if you choose to take it, is to make your ideas feasible, economical, viable and marketable. Science and engineering is the solution



    • I appreciate the feedback Peter! My apologies for getting back to you so late.
      I agree with you that economics dominates much of our decision-making today, but that’s precisely the problem I have with our thought process. I would argue that being economical and being ethical are not mutually exclusive. Southern farmers before the Civil War used cheap slave labor because it was economical, but the US ultimately diverged from this practice because of ethical reasons. Today we have a similar moral imperative before us: we must diverge from fossil fuels for the sake of the upcoming generations who have no choice but to live on the planet that we leave behind, even if it means losing some money or power. The economy is a volatile beast that is always subject to change and recovery, but change inflicted on the climate is almost irreversible.
      However, I certainly agree that some solutions to environmental problems are far too inconsiderate of economic consequences, despite having good intentions.
      Again, thank you so much for your response!


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