THE ENERGY AND EARTH RESOURCES GRADUATE PROGRAM TAKES AN ALL-ENCOMPASSING APPROACH TO ENERGY CAREERS, SETTING UP STUDENTS TO THRIVE IN A RAPIDLY DIVERSIFYING ENERGY LANDSCAPE
BY MONICA KORTSHA
Not long ago, a career in energy was practically synonymous with a career in fossil fuels.
But according to Richard Chuchla, who spent more than 35 years at ExxonMobil before joining the Jackson School of Geosciences, that’s no longer the case. Energy is oil and gas. But it’s also renewables. It’s hydrogen and nuclear. It’s batteries and power grids that can store and transmit electricity from multiples sources, among other growing industries.
“When I was in graduate school, if you were interested in energy there was one place you were going, with just a few exceptions, and that was the oil and gas industry,” Chuchla said. “And that is so different today.”
Chuchla is director of the Jackson School’s Energy and Earth Resources (EER) graduate program. The master’s level program prepares students for careers in energy, water and other industries involved with earth resource production. And while hydrocarbons continue to be a popular career path, the energy transition to lower-carbon fuels along with efforts to mitigate climate change are opening new career opportunities.
EER students and alumni show the breadth of what a career in energy and related fields can look like. They’re working with electric vehicles (EVs) and utility-scale batteries. They’re researching how ancient cultures managed soil to see if applying similar techniques could boost environmental carbon storage today. They’re helping energy startups get the business skills and connections they need to succeed.
And even those entering traditional oil and gas jobs are encountering an industry that’s working toward more sustainable business practices.
Take recent EER graduate Marco Guirola, who is now an intern at ExxonMobil. For his thesis research, he investigated carbon capture and storage — a method for keeping carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere by injecting them into the subsurface — and the potential migration rates and costs associated with storage in reservoirs under the Gulf of Mexico. Although his internship is in conventional hydrocarbon reservoir development, on his first day on the job he was asked to share his thesis work to colleagues with the company’s Low Carbon Solutions division.
“There are now CCS experts here,” Guirola said. “I think that if someone’s going to make [CCS] happen at scale, it’s going to be at the majors first. So, that’s what I’m aiming for.”
Although oil and gas are projected to remain the most consumed energy source in the country for the near to midterm, renewables are the fastest- growing energy sector and are on track to stay that way, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. What’s more, this growth is expected to receive a big boost thanks to the federal Inflation Reduction Act that passed in August and includes hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and other incentives for companies involved with renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon removal, including carbon capture and storage. Some universities have responded to the growth of renewables by spinning off new graduate programs based on sustainability, or even specific energy sources, such as solar or wind. But the EER program, which got its start in 1981, has a different approach. Instead of focusing on select energy sectors, it encompasses all by providing a broad- base energy education.
“As regards education, we are energy agnostic because we believe that the long-term solutions will require all of the above,” said Chuchla.
All EER students share a foundation in the four key areas that any energy business must consider: the geology of earth resources, computational data analytics, energy and resource finance, and decision analysis.
At the same time, each student must stake out their own path, undertaking original research and writing a thesis and developing a concentration in a particular area. They do this by working with the program’s 38 affiliated faculty and research scientists from across The University of Texas at Austin, including those in the Jackson School, Cockrell School of Engineering, LBJ School of Public Affairs, College of Liberal Arts and UT School of Law.
This multidisciplinary approach attracts students with wide-ranging interests, backgrounds and career goals. Some students already have energy industry experience and are looking to branch into new directions. Others see the program as a way to launch their energy careers.
EER student Hazal Kirimli falls into the first category. She has a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Koç University in Turkey and was a data analyst at Shell for about a year, where she worked on optimizing transportation of oil from refineries to gas stations. She enrolled in EER to pivot into more environmentally focused work and is now collaborating with Michael Young, a senior research scientist at the Jackson School’s Bureau of Economic Geology. Young is leading a project assessing the environmental costs of three types of West Texas electricity sources — wind, solar and natural gas — over the course of their “life cycles,” an analysis that considers the impacts of mining, water consumption and manufacturing components and the disposal of old equipment, along with direct power generation. Kirimli said that the project is an opportunity to apply her previous experience to new ends.
“My chemical engineering background plays a role in a new way,” she said. “My research is all about flowcharts and understanding mass balances, inputs, outputs and analyzing them for a bigger picture.”
For her thesis research, Kirimli is applying similar techniques to evaluate different sources of nickel, an essential battery ingredient. And as an intern at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a company that provides intelligence and forecasts on the battery market, she is learning more about how these analyses are applied in a business setting.
“The future is really in the EVs, batteries, and the supply chains for those batteries,” she said. “I want to stay in this area.”
Steven Wedel, another EER student, has walked a very different path. Before enrolling in EER he was working as a diver at the Georgia Aquarium, a job that spoke to his interest in ocean life and ecosystems. After earning a bachelor’s in earth and environmental science from the University of Michigan, Wedel initially planned on going to graduate school to study coral reefs and how they could be protected from climate change. But a lack of graduate funding led him to explore other career options. He thought back to a class that emphasized the connection between climate change and the energy system, and the need for lower carbon options to mitigate that change. He also watched the stock market.
“I followed a lot of sustainable companies … and I kind of realized I could go to grad school for something along those lines,” he said. “I was fascinated by [the EER program] because I would be able to get the business experience while getting sustainability to play into it, too.”
Now an EER student, he is building skills and experience in business development in the sustainable energy space. As part of his thesis work on Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) evaluation — a metric that seeks to capture the broader impacts of a company’s business practices — Wedel is working as a senior student associate with UT’s Austin Technology Incubator. The program helps start- up companies build business skills and connections in its specific sector. Wedel’s job involves working closely with businesses with technological innovations that achieve an aspect of sustainability. He said that he thinks of himself as the “optimistic scientist” in the start-up space, believing in the ability of businesses to help mitigate climate change, but only if sustainable practices are considered from the very start.
“A lot of people just look at things from a business perspective, ROI — return on investment — how much money companies are making them, and then try to incorporate sustainability measures,” Wedel said. “It can be a big reality hit, realizing that that’s not always something that can be easily done.”
While the EER program provides a space for each student to pick a specialized track, the multidisciplinary foundation helps students see how the different parts intersect in the energy space. It also gives them a foundation that can help them collaborate with colleagues from different areas.
“The premise is you can’t solve any energy or earth resources program with just technology, with just finance, or with just policy,” Chuchla said. “Think of each of these as equations that you have to solve simultaneously to come up with what I call a truly sustainable energy and earth resources solution.”
During his time at ExxonMobil, Chuchla went from being a field geologist in the mining and minerals sector to a project executive in oil and gas, seeing firsthand the success of leaders who kept that balance in mind while seeking input from colleagues across disciplines. EER alumna Jenny Brown (née Sauer) said this approach is an essential part of her work, too, even though she is in a very different part of the energy industry — grid-scale energy storage.
Brown is manager of market analytics at Jupiter Power, a company that develops, constructs and operates batteries that can be linked to the electric grid to store and release surplus power. Large-scale batteries play an important role in expanding the adoption of wind and solar, Brown said, because they help counter intermittency issues. During sunny and windy hours, the batteries charge on excess power. When it’s cloudy and still and grid demand is high, they can release their store of electrons back to the grid and preempt the need for generators to come online.
With multiple Jupiter sites already plugged into the Texas power supply, the company is developing construction plans across the country, including across the northeast, Midwest and California. Part of Brown’s job is determining the commercial prospects of energy storage at different locations. To do that requires analyzing input from energy experts from across the company, including colleagues in finance and data science, engineering and development. She said that from day one in the EER program, students are set on a path to problem solve in this collaborative fashion.
“EER equips students with a synthesis and judgment skill base where they become deeply exposed to a variety of disciplines,” she said. “The students will always have that ability to engage with an expert on the other side of the table, which I think allows more enriched analysis, communication and decision making in a business environment.”
With hydrocarbons expected to fulfill the majority of energy demand over the next several decades, capturing and sequestering emissions is a necessity to keep them from contributing to climate change. This need is spurring a sister industry in carbon management. Researchers at the Jackson School’s Gulf Coast Carbon Center frequently supervise EER students interested in subsurface storage of CO2, such as Guirola, the alumnus who is now at ExxonMobil.
But carbon management can take place at the surface, too. Soils are a major carbon sink for the CO2 taken in by plants, but erosion can release the greenhouse gas back into the atmosphere. EER student Tara Greig is investigating ways to keep soil in place by looking to the past.
Greig, who is earning a dual master’s from the EER program and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, is interested in analyzing how the ancient Maya civilization of Central America used soil terracing, creating horizontal plots on hillsides, to mitigate soil erosion after a long period of great soil loss.
Greig’s background is in mathematics and statistics, earning her bachelor’s in both from Southern Methodist University. And she is currently interning at the semiconductor company Tokyo Electron in their informational systems department. But after learning about the importance of soils in an introductory geology class, she became interested in both the science and sociological impacts of climate change on soil.
“Erosion is generally a smaller issue when we think of climate change,” she said. “We think about oceans rising or how it’s so hot we can’t leave the house. Within the public media, soil isn’t something that’s discussed as much but is something I find interesting.”
The interest led her to UT Professor Timothy Beach, a soil researcher and geoarchaeologist in the College of Liberal Arts who is investigating the soil retention techniques of the ancient Maya.
Although she is early in the research, it’s Greig’s goal to quantify how much terracing was used in a particular area and how much carbon it stored. She said that depending on the results, similar techniques could be put to use in other erosion-prone regions.
Chuchla said that the diverse research projects and career trajectories of EER students and alumni often take him by surprise. He said that this just goes to show how much change and innovation are happening in the energy and climate sector — and how EER students are well prepared to participate and lead.
“When I find out what students go on to do after they graduate, I’m blown away, and I would have never predicted it in many cases,” he said. “But it ends up being a reaffirmation of what this degree is all about, while underscoring how uncertain the specific path is to our energy future and why we need to offer an education that creates robustness to changing opportunities.”
While the EER education approach helps students build a foundation that can serve them across energy sectors, Chuchla said that it also provides another important benefit. In an energy environment that can be highly polarized and politicized, it helps them build an understanding of the facts and the competing priorities.
“Part of what I hope our students do is play a role of honest brokers in the energy discussion because they have an understanding of the breadth of energy issues and the problems and contrasts,” he said.
EER alumnus Tomás Fuentes- Afflick said that this type of measured analysis is what businesses are looking for as they address their own energy issues. He was hired by NRG Energy in Houston to aid the effort on transitioning the utility giant’s vehicle fleet to all electric by 2030, and then work with NRG’s partner companies to help them do the same.
The job description aligns well with his EER thesis research, where he analyzed the CO2 emissions changes that would come from converting the city of Austin’s fleet of conventional diesel buses to EV models. The research involved accounting for the emissions associated with different electricity sources, from Austin Energy’s own energy mix to electricity produced with renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In all cases, he found that the electric buses produced lower overall CO2 emissions than diesel.
Fuentes-Afflick said that the finding underscores the importance and opportunity that the energy transition to lower-carbon fuels presents and that he is excited for the opportunity to apply the science with a major player like NRG in an energy hub like Houston.
“I was looking for a position where I could feel like I was making an impact on the environment,” Fuentes-Afflick said. “I feel this role definitely has it.”