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Group Urges UT To Fight Climate Change In University-Owned Oil Fields

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Flaring is one way oil companies prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere.

Student activists around the country are pushing for universities not to invest in industries that contribute to global warming. But at the University of Texas, some environmentalists are taking a different approach, urging UT not to divest, but to adopt more climate-friendly drilling rules.

That’s because the University of Texas System isn’t just a collection of public universities; it’s an organization that owns millions of acres of oil fields. It leases that land to drilling companies to make billions of dollars for its schools.

“If you pooled all those operations together and compared them to other oil companies in the state, UT would be the fifth largest producer of oil in the state,” said Luke Metzger, director of the nonprofit Environment Texas.

Metzger and other environmentalists want UT to reduce the methane that escapes into the atmosphere from its oil field operations. Methane is a greenhouse gas many times stronger than CO2.  

“We think it’s really a no brainer for UT to require the companies that lease this public land to meet the best practices to reduce this methane pollution,” he said.

Last week, with Metzger’s help, a group of alumnus and donors sent a letterto UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven, urging him to convene a task force on methane reduction.

One of the signers was John Hofmeister, a past president of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

Hofmeister said getting involved in the methane campaign is “completely consistent” with his work at Shell. In fact, he said, he thinks it’s bad for industry to resist small changes to reduce climate change.

“Rather than wait for the regulators to shut down the industry, why don’t we shut down the emissions of the industry so that we can enjoy the fruits of those molecules?” he said.

Not everyone agrees a task force is necessary.

Mark Hauser, the CEO of University Lands, which manages UT’s vast land holdings, said industry is already doing a good job of reducing methane.

Ultimately, he said, it's up to McRaven to decide whether to convene a task force.

“Should that be developed, certainly we’ll listen to them,” he said.

But here's where things get interesting: The chancellor is stepping down this month. Supporters of new methane rules hope the creation of a task force will be McRaven’s swan song. If it's not, they’ll likely call on his replacement to act.

One name that’s being floated as the next chancellor? Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state and retired head of Exxon Mobil.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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