COMMENTARY: UT System: Stop polluting


In April, 177 faculty and staff from across the University of Texas System wrote Chancellor William McRaven urging him to reduce the climate-damaging methane pollution that is 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, few know little about UT’s massive and polluting oil and gas operations in west Texas.

Hundreds of companies lease land from UT to drill for oil and gas. Managed by University Lands (UL), 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 extracted from it, generate millions of dollars of revenue for the University of Texas and Texas A&M Systems. 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, Environment Texas estimated that methane emissions on UT lands have nearly doubled and that between 2009 and 2014, oil and gas produced the equivalent of 11.7 million tons of climate pollution. In other words, in one year the methane from UL oil and gas operations inflicts the same short term climate impact as 2.5 million cars, or 3.4 coal-fired power plants.

University Lands disputes these calculations. However they rely on industry-reported emission data, which is known by researchers as providing an incomplete picture.

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), these policies are far from adopting the most recent industry best-practices.

We’re happy to admit that UL does many things right, and we believe that if oil and gas companies were regularly leaking oil onto their land, UL’s action would be swift and comprehensive. But oil and gas companies on UL land are regularly leaking methane into our atmosphere and warming the planet. And their response, so far, has been lacking.

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 (and fortunately UT has some of the nation’s leading methane scientists) along with students and other concerned faculty members, to fully air out the data, science and possible solutions.

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, in other words, be part of the climate-change solution rather than exacerbate the problem.