Colleges and universities that are struggling to soften the financial blow brought on by cuts in state funding might be looking at an old, but suddenly new again, revenue stream: oil. Several institutions of higher education have recently hosted representatives of oil and natural gas mining companies who are exploring whether the land under their campus could be viable for exploitation by the new ‘fracking’ method of pulling natural resources from below the surface.
Jeffery Stone, an environmental science professor at the Indiana State University, recently witnessed such an experiment. An oil company’s seismic shaker trucked rolled slowly over the campus street sending out pulses every eight seconds trying to map out any oil reserves hiding below the grass and concrete.
Stone took the visit as an opportunity to show his students modern prospecting in action. He said that that as he and his students were standing there, they could feel the sidewalk heave under them each time the truck emitted another pulse.
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.
Indiana isn’t alone. Campuses across states like Montana, Texas, West Virginia and Ohio – where oil is a booming business, or at least was in the past – are wondering if the new but controversial extracting technique could bring some old oil wells back to life. Pumping operations are already underway at the University of Southern Indiana while, according to NPR, Pennsylvania is considering turning over six of its university campuses to prospectors.
If Pennsylvania wells pan out, that will be quite a boon for the universities and their students. A new law will make it so that a full half of the profits from the oil extracted on campus is returned to the university. An additional 15% will go to subsidizing student tuition.
As with any similar project, these grand plans are not unfolding without a fair bit of controversy, with some student groups and many environmental ones raising concerns.
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.”