Texas Researchers Urge Cuts in Pollution on University Land

(CN) – More than 50 faculty members at a prominent Texas university on Wednesday urged officials involved with a program that raises millions of dollars in oil and gas revenue for higher education to significantly reduce oilfield methane pollution.

A pump jack is pictured near Imperial, Texas in 2017. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

In a letter to Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, the group of researchers and professors urged officials to develop a plan for cutting methane emissions on land the university profits from by half within the next five years.

To those outside Texas, a university making money off oil and gas – while also conducting studies on the industry and its environmental impact – might seem odd.

But Texas A&M and the University of Texas, the state’s other major college system, were both built on fossil fuels.

In an arrangement dating back to the late 1800s, the universities both benefit from oil and gas leasing on more than 2.1 million acres of West Texas land managed by University Lands, an entity housed within the University of Texas System. The profits are pumped into a fund the two college systems share, though not equally, that had grown to almost $22 million as of 2018.

The A&M faculty members acknowledged in their letter that the program has taken “some steps” to address methane emissions. But, the letter said, officials have “no plan in place to accurately quantify and characterize emissions and guarantee emissions are reduced.” The letter echoes a similar push from researchers and students at the University of Texas.

A spokesperson for Texas A&M did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment, but University Lands has said it is “actively working to reduce methane emissions from its lands.”

In 2018, it launched an environmental “incentives program” aimed at pushing energy companies to voluntarily cut methane emissions by adopting industry-approved best practices.

Wednesday’s letter calls for University Lands to go a step further and require best practices on methane.

“Empty promises from University Lands has not offered a concrete plan to how or when they will significantly cut emissions from their lands,” the faculty members wrote.

Among the researchers to sign the letter was John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist and director of A&M’s Texas Center for Climate Studies.

“To me, controlling methane leaks is oil-and-gas friendly and climate friendly at the same time,” Nielsen-Gammon said by email.

Many oil companies view the loss of methane through leaks as wasted product, and some have signed onto voluntary methane reduction programs.

“Texas A&M is at the forefront of research showing that fossil fuel emissions represent a clear and present danger to Texas and to our planet, and at the forefront of research on how to contain the effects of climate change,” Gil Rosenthal, a biology professor at the university, said in a statement released by the advocacy group Environment Texas, which helped recruit signatories for the letter.

“This is a historic opportunity for us to lead by example,” Rosenthal said.

The push from the researchers comes as the Trump administration moves to relax federal regulations on oilfield methane, an effort some major oil companies like BP, Shell and ExxonMobil have publicly opposed.

“The EPA should maintain its current regulations on methane emissions,” Emma Pabst, an advocate with Environment Texas, said in a statement. “But whatever the feds decide, A&M and UT should insist that drillers on our public lands are held to high standards and not allowed to pollute.”

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