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There's Oil On Them Thar Campuses!

Nov 20, 2012
Originally published on November 20, 2012 6:14 pm

Imagine going to college and finding an oil rig on campus. That's becoming increasingly likely as oil and gas companies use a controversial technique commonly referred to as fracking to extract resources from land underneath campuses across the country.

Environmental science professor Jeffery Stone will never forget the day the earth shook on Indiana State University's campus in Terre Haute.

"They did it like in eight-second pulses, and you could feel the whole sidewalk wobble like an earthquake almost," Stone says.

It was a seismic shaker truck rolling slowly through the campus. Stone wanted his students to see the truck send out low-grade shock waves into the earth. They watched a printout showing the exact location of the oil reserves.

"We actually get to see a good example of how stuff works. You don't get that very much here out in the Midwest unless you live close by the stuff," says student Derek Seaney.

But it's not just an academic experience. Students could be seeing a lot more oil-related activity soon.

Terre Haute once supported a substantial oil business, but it shut down years ago after many here thought the oil ran out. But Steve Miller with Pioneer Oil thinks they may have been wrong.

"We want to go where we think the oil is. This happens to be under the university. Most thought it might be too difficult to get zoning, et cetera, to be able to do it. So we were mindful of what we were dealing with," Miller says.

If the company finds enough oil, it will set up a drill site at the edge of campus. Across the country the story is much the same. Oil and gas companies eager to tap domestic fuel sources are pairing with colleges and universities desperate to find new revenue sources.

An Opportunity Or A Bad Message?

More than a dozen schools in states as varied as Texas, Montana, Ohio and West Virginia are already tapping natural resources on college campuses. The University of Southern Indiana recently started pumping oil. And Pennsylvania is considering drilling possibilities at six campuses. A new state law requires that half the fees and royalties from those leases go to the universities where the wells are located, and another 15 percent must be used to subsidize student tuition.

But the plan to extract gas and oil on campuses doesn't please everyone. Some students, faculty and environmental groups are raising safety concerns about everything from possible explosions to soil, water and air contamination. Maya van Rossum, with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, worries that tapping these resources is at cross-purposes with teaching students to be better stewards of the Earth.

"It's sending a very bad message that if you can make a buck, you turn the land over to the industry," says Rossum. "And we don't want to be teaching our young people that."

At Indiana State in Terre Haute there seems to be more of a wait-and-see approach. University trustee Norman Lowery says they have to be open minded about new revenue options.

"We saw that as an opportunity. If in fact there is oil that can be produced there, we will have the opportunity to do some things that we would not be able to do for years," Lowery says.

Kristin Sullivan of the University of Texas, Arlington says the $10 million the school has earned from the wells so far is great — but she says the school knows the wells have a limited life span.

"Knowing that it wasn't going to go on forever, [we can] put the revenue toward encouraging gifts to the endowment," Sullivan says. "This is a finite resource. You have to be very wise about how you allocate that revenue."

Tara Singer of Indiana State University says no one is counting any money just yet. That's because they've made a promise to their students, faculty and the community to monitor the process carefully.

"The tanks and everything will be underground. I don't think that people will really visually recognize that oil drilling is taking place on the university campus, and if there are any noise problems or odor problems we will discontinue the operation," Singer says.

If all goes as expected, Indiana State will join the growing list of schools across the country exploiting their natural resources in an attempt to help the next generation of human resources.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Imagine going to college and finding, of all things, an oil rig. That's becoming increasingly likely as companies use a technique known as fracking to extract oil and gas from land underneath campuses across the country. Erika Celeste visited one proposed site in Indiana.

ERIKA CELESTE, BYLINE: Environmental science professor Jeffery Stone will never forget the day the earth shook on Indiana State University's campus in Terre Haute.

JEFFERY STONE: They did it like in eight-second pulses or whatever, but you could feel the whole sidewalk just sort of wobble like an earthquake almost. It was really weird.

CELESTE: No, it wasn't an earthquake. But it was something the professor wanted his class to see: a seismic shaker truck rolling slowly through the campus. Its mission was to send out low-grade shockwaves into the earth. Then students like Derek Seaney watched a printout showing the exact location of the oil reserves.

DEREK SEANEY: We actually get to see a good example of how stuff works. You don't get that very much here out in the Midwest unless you live close by the stuff.

CELESTE: But it's not just an academic experience. Students could be seeing a lot more oil-related activity soon. Terre Haute once supported a substantial oil business, but it shut down years ago after many here thought the oil ran out. But Steve Miller with Pioneer Oil thinks they may have been wrong.

STEVE MILLER: We want to go where we think the oil is. And this happens to be, you know, under the university. Most thought it might be too difficult to get zoning, et cetera, to be able to do it. So we, you know, we were mindful, you know, of what we're dealing with.

CELESTE: If the company finds enough oil, it will set up a drill site at the edge of campus. Across the country, the story is much the same. Oil and gas companies eager to tap domestic fuel sources are pairing with colleges and universities desperate to find new revenue sources. More than a dozen schools in states as varied as Texas, Montana, Ohio and West Virginia are already tapping natural resources on their campuses. The University of Southern Indiana recently started pumping oil, and Pennsylvania is considering drilling possibilities at six of its campuses. A new state law requires that half the fees and royalties from those leases go to the universities where the wells are located, and another 15 percent must be used to subsidize student tuition.

But the plan to extract gas and oil on campuses doesn't please everyone. Some students, faculty and environmental groups are raising safety concerns about everything from possible explosions to soil, water and air contamination. Maya van Rossum with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network worries that tapping these resources is at cross-purposes with teaching students to be better stewards of the Earth.

MAYA VAN ROSSUM: It's sending a very bad message that if you can make a buck, you turn the land over to the industry. And we don't want to be teaching our young people that.

CELESTE: At Indiana State in Terre Haute, there seems to be more of a wait-and-see approach. University trustee Norman Lowery says they have to be open-minded about new revenue options.

NORMAN LOWERY: We saw that as an opportunity, perhaps, if, in fact, there is oil that can be produced there in an environmentally friendly manner, then we have the opportunity to derive some revenue that we can use to do things that we're not going to be able to do for years.

CELESTE: Kristin Sullivan with the University of Texas at Arlington says the $10 million their school has earned from the well so far is great, but they know the wells have a limited lifespan.

KRISTIN SULLIVAN: Knowing that it wasn't going to go on forever put the revenue toward encouraging gifts to the endowment.

CELESTE: Back in Terre Haute, Indiana State's Tara Singer says no one is counting any money just yet. That's because they've made a promise to their students, faculty and community to monitor the process very carefully.

TARA SINGER: The tanks and everything will be underground. I don't think people will really visually recognize that oil drilling is taking place on the university campus. And if there are any noise problems or odor problems, we will discontinue the operation.

CELESTE: If all goes as expected, Indiana State will join the growing list of schools across the country exploiting their natural resources in attempt to help the next generation of human resources. For NPR News, I'm Erika Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.