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There's Oil On Them Thar Campuses!

Posted: November 20, 2012

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Imagine going to college and finding an oil rig. That is happening at more than a dozen schools across the country that are tapping natural resources. Some students, faculty and environmental groups are raising concerns about possible explosions, and soil, water and air contamination.

Students in environmental science professor Jeffery Stone's class watch as a seismic shaker truck rolls through Indiana State University's campus.

Students in environmental science professor Jeffery Stone's class watch as a seismic shaker truck rolls through Indiana State University's campus. Tony Campbell

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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