UT needs to cut the polluting

Photo by Cooper Neill

Last month, 177 faculty and staff from across the University of Texas system wrote to Chancellor Bill McRaven, urging him to reduce the climate-damaging methane pollution leaking from oil and gas facilities on land managed by the UT System. The letter was followed by a student government resolution making the same request.

While many of us have seen the oil rig on the UT-Austin campus (on the corner of Martin Luther King and Trinity), most in our community know little about UT’s massive — and polluting — oil and gas operations out in West Texas.

Hundreds of companies lease land from UT to drill for oil and gas. Managed by University Lands — which has a similar arrangement with the Texas A&M System — these 2 million acres of UT lands are home to more than 9,000 oil and gas wells.

This land, and the oil and gas that’s extracted from it, generates millions of dollars of revenue for the UT System. But in addition to revenue, oil and gas production also produces significant emissions of a powerful climate pollutant: methane.

Invisible and odorless, methane is 80 times more powerful a heat trapper than carbon dioxide and is responsible for 25 percent of current global warming. Using EPA data, the nonprofit Environment Texas estimated that methane emissions on UT lands nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014, producing the equivalent of 11.7 million tons of climate pollution. In one year, the methane from University Lands oil and gas operations on UT and A&M land inflicts the same short-term climate impact as 2.5 million cars or 3.4 coal-fired power plants.

University Lands takes issue with these calculations, suggesting they have "correct, accurate statistics” that are “specific” to their lands However, many of the numbers they cite include similar extrapolations and assumptions as the estimate they criticize. They rely on industry-reported emissions data researchers believe provide an incomplete picture. University Lands’ data presentation and message on methane emissions often parrots that of industry, and frankly, does not reflect an approach worthy of a world class, truth-seeking research institution.

While University Lands has a small handful of longstanding policies in place which might help reduce methane emissions (for example, their requirement that operators pay royalties on gas burned through flares), they are far from adopting the most recent best practices in this area. They refuse to require operators on their land to replace high-leak equipment with new, lower-leaking retrofits, or to carry out regular leak-detection and repair programs on older wells and facilities. They won’t even set a goal or target for reducing methane emissions. Even the industry group One Future has set a goal of a 1 percent leak rate.

We’re happy to admit that University Lands does many things right, and we believe that if oil and gas companies were regularly leaking oil onto their land, University Lands’ action would be swift and comprehensive. But oil and gas companies on University Lands’ terrain are regularly leaking methane into our atmosphere and warming the planet. Their response, so far, has been lacking. Why is the bare minimum acceptable when it comes to our climate?

There is a real opportunity for University Lands to show leadership in Texas on this issue. That’s why we’re calling on UT and University Lands to convene a Methane Task Force comprised of UT and Texas A&M experts — fortunately, UT has some leading methane scientists — along with students and other concerned faculty members to fully air out the data, science and different ideas for making progress on this issue.

Our request is simple: As a leader on many climate change issues and a steward of our public land, UT should reduce the amount of methane leaking from the wells on its land. Many departments at UT are working on exciting and promising technologies and policies that will help us reduce climate emissions, and UT spends a fair amount of time bragging about its climate change efforts and experts. But the methane emissions on its land undermines the university’s commitment to sustainability. UT should be part of the climate change solution rather than exacerbating the problem.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

David Matiella

Lecturer, University of Texas at San Antonio

Andrew Costigan

Student, University of Texas at Austin