The University of Texas was host to possibly the most ironic and ill-conceived protest in history in late October. As reported by the Daily Texan student newspaper: “The UT Center for Enterprise and Policy Analytics at the McCombs School of Business hosted the lecture in the Cockerell School of Engineering, where Alex Epstein spoke to a full Mulva Auditorium about the risks in using alternative means of energy and why he supports the fossil fuel industry. In the small hallway outside, about 30 students and environmental activists advocated against Epstein’s claims against the efficacy of renewable energy.”
The ”environmental activists” included representatives from the usual suspect anti-development lobby groups based in Austin, including the Austin Sierra Club, Environment Texas and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, along with a small gathering of UT students representing ultra-radical leftist organizations like Extinction Rebellion ATX and Students Fighting Climate Change. None of that is particularly surprising or notable, other than that the “demonstration” attracted such a small number of participants.
Epstein is the author of the outstanding book titled, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” Epstein’s talks focus mostly on the myriad ways in which oil and gas and other fossil fuels have benefited modern society. I know this because, unlike the protesters, I’ve read Epstein’s book and attended several of his speaking events, where I actually took the time to hear what he has to say.
But of course, in today’s hyper-politicized society in which climate change activists pursue their objectives with the zeal of a global religion, actually listening to what folks perceived to be on the other side of the issue becomes not just inadvisable, but a forbidden exercise. All of which would be somewhat excusable had the protest group consisted solely of mushy-minded 18 year-olds.
Sadly, though, there were older adults involved as well. In fact, the protest itself was organized by a UT professor of geological sciences named Kerry Cook. As reported by the Daily Texan, Cook said she organized the protest to push back against lectures like Epstein’s, which she said often go without fact-checking or moderation. Had the Professor bothered to read Epstein’s book, she would know it is meticulously fact-based and foot-noted, and that his presentations are as well.
Regardless, the irony in all of this is the spectacle of a University of Texas professor leading University of Texas students in a protest against “fossil fuels.” Why is that ironic? Because both the salary paid to Prof. Cook — and all UT professors — and the tuition paid by every student in the University of Texas system are highly subsidized by the Permanent University Fund, which derives its wealth annually from hundreds of millions of dollars of oil and gas royalty income from wells drilled on University lands in the Permian Basin of West Texas.
The Permanent University Fund, or PUF, was established in the original Texas Constitution as a means of supporting The University of Texas, which was then in its infancy. In establishing the PUF, the people of Texas set aside two million acres of what was thought to be essentially worthless land in West Texas as its initial assets.
Of that initial two million acres, one million consisted of lands that bordered some of the state’s railroad rights of way, and the other million came out of state-owned lands in the region. In 1883, the Texas and Pacific Railroad granted an additional one million acres of land that it had deemed “too worthless to survey”.
While that designation seems laughably absurd today, we have to remember that West Texas is mostly desert country, and in the late 1800s, when oil had yet to be discovered in Texas, there were few means of getting any value out of this arid land. What little income the managers of the PUF were able to initially generate from the land came mainly from the leasing of grazing rights.
That all changed in 1923, when The Santa Rita No. 1 well struck oil on University lands in Reagan County, about halfway between Midland and San Angelo. That well produced for 67 years before being finally plugged and abandoned in 1990. The completion of the well — and the thousands of University land’s oil and gas wells that have come since — had such a significant impact on the fortunes of the University of Texas system that, in 1940, the original wooden pumpjack that was used on the Santa Rita No. 1 was moved to the UT campus in Austin, where it still resides in a place of honor near the school’s football stadium today.
How significant have oil and gas revenues been to UT? So significant that, in 1931, the Texas legislature saw fit to actually split the fund, awarding one-third of its revenues from that point forward to the Texas A&M University system, a split that endures today. So significant that, of all university endowments in America, the UT endowment ranks second only to that of Harvard University. That significant.
When the drafters of that 1876 Constitution vowed to establish “a University of the first class,” they really had no financial means of achieving that goal. The University of Texas remained a chronically under-funded college whose classes were conducted and whose students were housed in substandard buildings until well into the 20th century. The discovery of oil on University lands changed all of that, and today the University of Texas System consists of eight major university campuses and six health science institutions spread across the state. UT Austin regularly finds itself ranked among the top tier of publicly-funded universities in the country.
Back to those student protesters, I can’t help wondering if any of them have the slightest idea about any of this? Do any of them have a clue what that big wooden rig situated at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Trinity Street on their campus represents?
Mostly, I wonder if any of them have any notion about how the billions of dollars in annual revenues would be replaced if they were to prevail in their zeal to eliminate the production of oil and natural gas? That the school would have no choice but to dramatically increase tuition and fees, and place the burden of funding the real cost of their education on their shoulders?
Somehow, it seems doubtful they grasp any of that. Because if they did, the threat of having to take financial responsibility for themselves would most likely override their ideological zeal very quickly.
But hey, you’re only young and naïve once, and then real life begins. So, the students at least have some excuse for their naivete. The adults present, especially a professor of geological sciences, don’t have any excuse at all.
About the author: David Blackmon is the Editor of SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles — the last 22 years engaging in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at [email protected]