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Oil past and present

An institution that has run on fossil fuels for a century is getting greener — in a Longhorn-worthy way.

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This story was adapted from The Alcalde.

For eight years, student volunteers put the bins out and ran the campus recycling program themselves. Facility Services bought electric carts. Housing and Food Service chefs incorporated local foods. At The University of Texas at Austin, everybody was doing their own thing.

Image of the Santa Rita oil well

Santa Rita No. 1 produced its first gusher on May 28, 1923. The well sprayed oil over a 250-yard area around the site. After producing oil for 67 years, the well in Reagan County, West Texas, was capped in May 1990. Photo: Courtesy of Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Yes, the university was making eco-friendly changes, but it was a hodgepodge — a student club here, reused water there. Despite the assortment of well-intentioned efforts by various schools and departments, it was clear — the university needed a united front on its environmental initiatives.

The united front is here. But the sustainability battle is far from won.

In 2009, the university hired Jim Walker, to be the first full-on director of sustainability. Walker has helped to coordinate, for instance, the recycling projects that students had for so long run themselves. Walker has plenty of other plans, including to infuse sustainability into the curriculum as well as into the general campus mindset.

But it is a long war, especially for a school that has been so invested — historically, financially and academically — in the oil industry.

The university’s sustainability push is a far cry from its fossil-fuel roots, which drilled as deep into the ground as oil could be found.

Because of oil found on university lands, most famously at West Texas’ Santa Rita rig in 1923, The University of Texas at Austin became “one of the most heavily endowed schools in the nation,” write Roger M. Olien and Diana Davids Olien in their book, “Oil in Texas.” Today, with those wells increasingly tapped out, the university is eyeing the possibility of leasing its land to wind farm developers, and has already done so for at least one major wind farm.

All over campus, small changes are increasingly evident. When Texas was suffering through a drought, the university turned off seven iconic fountains — even as football season, and the accompanying alumni and booster traffic, was beginning.

When “Earth hour” —  an hour in which everyone turns off their lights to help the environment — took place last spring, The Tower also went dark. “It raises awareness,” said Walker, even though the savings were marginal (less than $3).

There are also changes in food services. “I’ve noticed in the past year that dining on campus has become more ‘green,’ with biodegradable dinnerware, tips on the dining tables, and separate trash cans for biodegradable items,” said Madeline Kirklighter, who is finishing an undergraduate degree in advertising.

And in March 2010, students overwhelmingly passed a $5-a-semester “green fee” that will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support environmentally friendly measures on campus.

Different departments are starting to pay more attention to their electricity use. Senior officials in the athletics department have received daily bulletins about their department’s electricity use. The idea, according to Brian Womack, the assistant athletic director for events and operations, is that the information “puts it in their brain that it costs a lot,” and hopefully as a result they will turn out the office lights and keep the temperature higher in the summer and cooler in winter. Erwin Center officials have been receiving such data for years, and Womack said it has cut electricity costs by 10 percent. Housing and Food Service also gets a daily electricity spreadsheet.

Perhaps the biggest thing that is changing, is the curriculum. Certainly, the university is a leading center for study of the fossil fuel industry. The well-regarded Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering accounts for 15 percent of the country’s undergraduates in the subject.

But there are green degrees too. The School of Architecture already offers a master’s in sustainable design, and a new bachelor’s in environmental sciences was approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board last year.

The university has also emerged as a leader in a critical area in which fossil fuels and green policies overlap: carbon capture and storage. The idea behind this is to shove heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants underground and make them stay there. The university’s Bureau of Economic Geology is working to study carbon storage techniques in Mississippi. The university won a grant of nearly $1 million from the Department of Energy for work in carbon storage. (Pumping carbon underground is already used in some oil fields to squeeze out more oil.)

The University of Texas at Austin is home to one of the world’s largest algae labs, which could hold a key to biofuels. Part of a $1.6 million grant to the Freshman Research Initiative from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, awarded in May 2010, could go toward research on the biofuels possibilities of algae, according to the university.

And even in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, green concepts are creeping in. One engineering seminar this year, conducted by a visiting academic, was titled “The Transition to a Sustainable Society.”

But for Jim Walker, the ultimate hope is that sustainability concepts will reach even those who are not specifically studying it. His idea of success? He wants to ensure that students with any academic focus can scroll quickly through a catalog of 8,200-plus courses and “quickly find courses and certificate programs that focus on sustainability within their academic discipline.” All fields of study have been shaped in some way by economic, environmental, and social conditions, he argues. The new course directory is planned to go live this March.

“If you’re studying 18th-century French romantic literature,” Walker predicts, “there’s going to be a sustainability element there.”

Read the full story in its original form.