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Renaissance Wonk: Michael Webber Pushes Better Energy Policy

Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.

Inventor, op-ed writer, policy wonk, and engineer—Michael Webber has done them all with success. But he’s just getting started on his dream job, teaching and conducting energy policy research at The University of Texas at Austin.

Webber was the first person Director Charles Groat hired for his Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy (CIEEP), an organization the Jackson School launched in the fall of 2005 to inform energy and environmental policy-making with the best scientfic and engineering expertise.

CIEEP unites the capabilities of the University’s Jackson School of Geosciences, Cockrell School of Engineering, and LBJ School of Public Affairs. As the center’s associate director, Webber is in perfect sync with CIEEP’s hybrid nature.

Both a policy researcher and assistant professor in the College of Engineering, Webber has bridged disciplines most of his life. As an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin, he completed two degrees in 1995, a B.S. in aerospace engineering and a B.A. in the College of Liberal Arts’ Plan II Honors Program.

He left Austin to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees at Stanford University in mechanical engineering, focusing on thermosciences. Webber learned to make sensors for emissions testing. He ended up working for a startup in the sensor business, inventing devices that monitor air quality. Webber’s experience as an inventor started him down the path that led to the Jackson School.

“Making sensors, I found the company didn’t have enough customers to buy them,” he said, “and realized there are a lot of good engineering and science solutions held up by bad policy.” Webber subsequently became an analyst at the RAND Corporation, where his projects included energy and environmental issues. Seeking the ability to focus more directly on policy while studying a wider range of issues, he was thrilled to find an opportunity with CIEEP and the Jackson School.

Though an engineer by training, Webber appreciates the chance to work on energy policy from within a geoscience institution. “It’s hard to tackle energy and environmental issues without an understanding of geosciences,” he said. “To cover the big picture, it’s much better to be in the geosciences. You tell people you’re an engineer and they ask what kind of widget you’re making.”

Academics with Impact

Though he only began teaching this fall, Webber, who had a partial appointment to the Jackson School as a research associate in 2006–2007, has already had a direct impact on Texas energy and environmental policy. This summer he was architect of an amendment that Rep. Mark Strama sponsored to House Bill 3732. The successfully passed amendment created a large tax incentive for oil companies to use captured, man-made carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. “The incentive is $15 a ton, big enough to maybe kick start a carbon capture industry in Texas,” said Webber.

is because Chinese oil consumption has been on an amazing rise over the last decade, with its daily demand for petroleum increasing by more than 3.6 million barrels between 1996 and 2006…And so it’s no wonder these clever pundits neatly pin the blame for high prices on recent Chinese demand…. But the part of the story that is repeatedly left out is that over the exact same time span, U.S. oil demand rose as well, and our imports of oil from the world markets went up 3.6 million barrels every single day, which is even greater growth than witnessed in China’s imports…. Somehow, these important pieces of information are universally missing from our collective consciousness. It’s as if we operate from the mindset that rapidly growing demand for imported oil is acceptable in America, but not in China.” Overall, U.S. imports of petroleum are four times larger than China’s. (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)HB 3732, which incentivizes advanced coal burning technologies, drew criticism from some environmentalists, but the amendment Webber helped craft drew support from both the pro-energy and pro-environment lobbies. Industry liked the amendment for its incentives. The Sierra Club liked the potential infrastructure for carbon sequestration.

The idea for the amendment, said Webber, emerged from a report written by public affairs graduate students in a class team taught by Ian Duncan, the Bureau of Economic Geology’s associate director for environment, and David Eaton, a professor in natural resource policy studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The students’ report, “Creating a Carbon Storage Industry in Texas,” concluded that a carbon storage industry would make economic sense for Texas.

The report synthesized Eaton’s research on policy and Duncan’s assessment of the state’s geoscience potential for a carbon storage industry.

“So the amendment was built on Bureau of Economic Geology research, UT policy research, and UT student work,” said Webber. “UT research revealed something useful can be done—and then it was passed into law.”

Improving Policy

All too often, said Webber, the policy-making process does not work so smoothly where energy is concerned. “We actually have a lot of solutions but don’t implement them due to bad policy,” he said. He cited America’s “corn-alcohol fetish” as a classic example: Though neither engineering nor objective policy analysis support corn-based ethanol as a viable energy solution, politicians from the powerful corn-producing states do, and they carry the day.

“When you bring engineering and science to bear on the analysis, you can get better solutions, such as the cap-and-trade approach to emissions,” he said. “It’s a good policy because everyone sat down at the table together, with engineers and scientists included, to work it out.”

At the Cockrell School of Engineering and the Jackson School’s Earth and Energy Resources (EER) graduate program, Webber will be training some of the well-informed analysts who will hopefully get called to the table. In addition to a core engineering course on thermodynamics, he will teach three general courses on energy this year, including a policy course cross-listed with engineering, EER, and the LBJ School. Next fall he returns to his undergraduate roots, teaching a Plan II Honors course on Energy and Society.

Changing the Debate

Though he teaches through the School of Engineering, Webber was hired by the Jackson School and CIEEP. Through CIEEP, he will continue to develop research programs and classes while working with people inside and outside the university who want to do multidisciplinary studies around energy.

Webber does not confine his ideas to white papers, however—over the past year he has published five op-eds on energy and environmental topics. His work has appeared in all of Texas’ major daily papers—sometimes in several at once—and in Geotimes.

“My mission is to raise public awareness about the tradeoffs of energy,” said Webber. His November 2006 op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News caught the spirit well, describing the opportunities for bipartisan energy policy that followed the mid-term U.S. congressional elections. Lamenting traditional U.S. energy politics, Webber wrote:

“The energy debate that has raged for decades still breaks down into two ideological camps: those who believe in low production and low consumption, and those who believe in high production and high consumption. Consequently, America has the worst of both—high consumption combined with low production. This means we suffer the national security and environmental impacts of high consumption, but reap few economic benefits from low production.”

In contrast, Webber suggested pushing policies that slow demand and increase domestic production, to lower prices, support domestic industry, and improve both environmental quality and energy security.

Webber’s commentaries have engaged the blogosphere, drawing widespread recirculation in the days after publication. Whether the subject is U.S. policy on climate change or the tendency of pundits to blame China for high oil prices, he is not shy about taking a stance.

University colleagues, including fellow energy experts, do not always agree with his opinions, he said. He appreciates both their perspectives and the give-and-take of information that follows his op-eds—information that has deepened his understanding of energy, in which UT Austin has depth and breadth matched by few universities.

“If I stir up a range of opinions, it means I’ve touched a nerve and I’m talking about the right issues,” said Webber. “I like the opportunity to get these thoughts and opinions out there. I think we need more engineers and scientists out there.”

For more information about the Jackson School contact J.B. Bird at, 512-232-9623.