Reporting Texas: UT Institute and Director Take On Energy Issues
Apr 21, 2012 | 2096 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

UT Institute and Director Take On Energy Issues

Raymond Lee Orbach, director of the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute, is hoping it helps make UT a leader in energy studies. Photo by Ari Phillips.

By Ari Phillips

For Reporting Texas and The Austin American-Statesman

In February, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas released the most prominent report in its two and a half years of existence. The study on shale gas development found no direct connection between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination, concluding instead that surface spills appear to pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” itself.

The response to the study has far exceeded Energy Institute Director Raymond Lee Orbach’s expectations, which he attributes to a public thirst for trustworthy information that cuts through the hype surrounding natural gas extraction. This is the exact type of impact Orbach had in mind when he joined the institute at its inception, and he hopes that future projects will garner the same interest and elevate the conversation around challenging energy issues.

April marks the Energy Institute’s midterm review. Orbach is committed to serving five years as director, and he’s ready to assess whether the institute has served UT well.

UT has been a longtime leader in the study of energy resources from fossil fuels. Those at the institute believe that global climate change — a primary concern of Orbach’s — and the challenges of fossil fuel production make sustainable energy security critical for the environmental and economic well-being of Texas and the planet at large. The institute hopes to make UT the leading university in energy research for the next 100 years.

Occupying a small cluster of offices across from UT Tower on the fourth floor of what used to be the Undergraduate Library, the Energy Institute acts as the center of an interdisciplinary enterprise that draws upon resources from across campus and partners with public and private institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sustainable energy developer NRG Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It has a permanent staff of five and an annual budget of about $1.3 million.

“We’re not doing research that’s just to produce some arcane knowledge that people sit around and talk about,” institute Communications Director Gary Rasp said. “It’s meant by design to have a public policy implication. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky mission.”

An unassuming physicist, Orbach, 78, is the spark that keeps the Energy Institute alight. His easygoing demeanor belies the intense work ethic and passion of many scientists. The Kandinsky poster beside his desk and unprompted discussion of Buckminster Fuller reveal a broad cultural engagement.

According to Orbach, the institute was the creation of a group of UT alumni who felt the campus needed an integrating structure to address energy issues. Orbach sees this integration as the great strength of the institute, making it not just an academic enterprise but a group of interested and committed individuals working toward a common goal.

For Melinda Taylor, a UT School of Law professor and executive director of the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law, having the institute offers a means of reaching out to people in engineering or science. Policy papers or legal analysis are more credible with a technical underpinning and offer more heft when they’re prepared by more than “just a bunch of lawyers,” Taylor said. “Orbach has been very inclusive in looking for ways that we can all leverage each other’s expertise.”

The institute helped Varun Rai, assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and faculty associate at the Energy Institute, launch a weekly energy symposium that brings in energy experts to talk about the latest research and happenings. “Often it’s very hard for faculty to look beyond the boundary and make these things happen,” Rai said. “That’s where the Energy Institute comes into the picture.”

Currently the institute is pursuing seven research initiatives: carbon capture and storage; electrical energy storage; fuel from sunlight, which attempts to replicate photosynthesis; hydraulic fracturing; hydrocarbon energy production frontiers; unconventional oil and gas; and nuclear energy and security. To pay for these initiatives, the institute looks to various outlets, including the U.S. Department of Energy, the private sector and forms of discretionary funding within the university.

The recent shale gas study, widely received as a promising and credible step in the ongoing discussion over fracking, did not receive industry funding and involved the participation of the Environmental Defense Fund. Yet it has added heat to the debate over the merits and hazards of fracking, which uses highly pressurized water, sand and chemical lubricants to force oil and gas from rock formations. Some fracking opponents question the results, pointing to the $1.5 million that ConocoPhillips committed to UT in 2010 for energy research; it was said at the time that the Energy Institute would administer the grants.

When questioned about industry influence by science editor Alan Boyle, Chip Groat , associate director of the Energy Institute and the leader of the fracking study, responded that “three or four of the large energy companies give money to UT for student support (a recruitment investment) and for research that is spread among various departments. … None of the ConocoPhillips money went into this study.”

Groat said that to support a follow-up study on the Barnett Shale, an area in the Fort Worth region with large reserves of natural gas, Energy Institute money, plus funds from energy companies and governments in the Barnett Shale development area, will be used as a matter of financial necessity.

“There is a lot of industry influence in this study — it’s not an independent, rigorously peer-reviewed study,” said Sharon Wilson , organizer for the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project and a landowner in the Barnett Shale.

Wilson and other critics argue that the study focuses on a very narrow definition of hydraulic fracturing when in reality there are a number of health and environmental problems throughout the entire process of extracting natural gas from the ground.

“What the public knows is that when they drill and frack, water gets contaminated,” Wilson said.

She views the study’s findings of surface water contamination as a cause for grave concern, whereas Orbach found the study reassuring.

“We knew there were surface problems,” said Orbach. “Those are serious issues, but they’re manageable. They’re things we can fix.”

Before coming to UT, Orbach was the Department of Energy’s first undersecretary for science starting in 2006, the culmination of a long career split between research, academic administration and executive positions at the Department of Energy. As Orbach concluded his time at the agency in 2009, UT asked him to be the first director of the Energy Institute. As of last June, his salary was $307,000.

Orbach’s concern about global climate change is closely linked to energy. He wrote about the need for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in a recent paper titled “Our Sustainable Earth” published by Reports on Progress in Physics, in which he also responds to eight myths commonly used to question climate change. The title of the paper plays on the term “our spaceship earth” from Fuller’s short book “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth,” about a spaceship that has a finite amount of resources and cannot be resupplied.

Fuller was a big influence on Orbach, who credits Fuller’s work for introducing him to the notion of the anthropocene — the geologic era marked by humankind’s significant impact on Earth’s ecosystems.

Since writing the paper, Orbach has revised his approach toward tackling climate change for two reasons: because he’s more worried about adapting to climate change than debating responsibility, and because the increased role of natural gas in energy production has made reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the near future more feasible. “It’s one thing to say that we’re responsible or not responsible,” Orbach said. “It’s another to note that the ocean is rising. Somebody else can worry about blame or not. The thing I’m worried about is adaptability — what the devil are we going to do about it?”

The institute is currently organizing a workshop on sea-level rise along the coast of Texas to be held jointly with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology at the university’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. The three tier-one research institutes in Texas — UT, A&M and Rice — will work together to examine the dangers of sea-level rise. According to Orbach, rising sea levels mean it no longer will take a hurricane to do incredible damage to the coast; a simple storm will do the trick.

“The workshop is energy-related because it depends on sea-level rise, which is occurring because of warming. Those kinds of things really worry me,” Orbach said.

Another institute initiative dealing with the ocean is the Research Center for Environmental Protection at Hydrocarbon Energy Production Frontiers, otherwise known as REEF. The project, a collaboration with MIT, looks at technology and regulatory developments around energy production in difficult environments, such as deep drilling in the arctic. It aims to facilitate hydrocarbon production in these challenging settings in safe and environmentally sensitive ways.

According to Taylor, REEF got started with the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After the spill, there was an outpouring of interest from oil companies and government agencies in evaluating regulatory structures and determining whether, from a technological standpoint, the companies and agencies really are in a position to be operating in such challenging environments. The project is still in the early stages involving discussion about how UT and MIT can work most constructively with industry, government and nongovernmental organizations.

As the institute begins the second half of Orbach’s five-year commitment, projects involving shale gas production in Eastern Europe, electric vehicle battery development and utility-scale energy storage are gaining momentum. Orbach hopes these and other Energy Institute pursuits will improve policymaking, as he believes the recent fracking study did, by providing the public and policymakers good, scientific information.

“When I was in the Department of Energy, we had proposals about geoengineering,” Orbach said. “People came to us about throwing iron filings into the ocean because then the iron could absorb CO2. If you start throwing massive amounts of iron filings in the ocean, a lot of critters aren’t going to like it. So I refused to fund it.

“We only have one world,” Orbach said. “You screw it up, you don’t have any other alternative. So you have to be careful. There’s a delicate balance.”

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