I had senior design lecture Nov. 19 with all the other senior civil, architectural and environmental engineering majors. The guest lecturer was the dean of the College of Engineering, Joseph Hughes. He talked about a few topics during the hour long lecture, but one topic was of particular concern to me because of its implications about our University’s role in society—how it influences the economy, technology and the environment on a large scale.
Dean Hughes began by talking about leadership and opportunities for young CAEE engineers, and how at his time at Drexel, he has worked to expand those opportunities and through the co-op program. He was very excited about one particular case in which he expanded cooperation with energy companies, bringing Drexel students co-op positions in several more companies. This was a figure I’d read about on Philly.com where Hughes discussed the topic of promoting Philadelphia as an “energy hub” at a conference in Philadelphia Nov. 5 with Philadelphia Energy Solutions and other business leaders.
For some background information, this “energy hub” idea is a plan being promoted by PES, the largest oil refinery on the East Coast which is located on the lower Schuylkill River in South Philadelphia. This plan is to attract massive investment into Philadelphia to build up natural gas pipelines and refineries to export natural gas being fracked from the Marcellus Shale deposits in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to all over the country. In addition to that, the idea is to attract industries that would benefit from the proximity, particularly highly polluting petrochemical industries, to the city and revive Philadelphia’s economy on a basis of gas refining and exporting, as well as dirty manufacturing. This would not only worsen pollution in the city, which affects public health in low-income neighborhoods adjacent to refineries the worst, but it would promote huge increases in gas production and burning by developing infrastructure that would be used for these purposes for decades.
It is already known that Drexel has been involved in promoting this energy hub. President John A. Fry is signed onto the CEO Council for Growth, a coalition of business, government and higher education leaders that has taken the promotion of the energy hub plan as a large part of its agenda. In December 2014, this coalition hosted a conference at Drexel’s Behrakis Grand Hall to promote the idea to other industry leaders and big investors. The event was open only to people invited by the host committee, which included Fry and Hughes. Various environmentally-minded groups and students, including the Fossil Free Drexel group, protested outside this event and held a counter-conference in Bossone to discuss alternative visions for the future. (Disclaimer: the author is a member of Fossil Free Drexel, a student organization which advocates for Drexel to divest its endowment funds from fossil fuel companies.)
Hughes did not talk about that conference during his lecture, nor about the fact that these plans for the future of Philadelphia (and in many ways, energy around the world) are being made by powerful, moneyed interests. The way our dean put it, right now is an exciting time because North America is having an “energy revolution” in terms of unconventional methods of obtaining oil and gas. It is especially exciting because that means that for the first time in the U.S. history, according to Hughes, the U.S. will be a net exporter of energy (i.e. fossil fuels).
Obviously this is hugely problematic for the environment. Scientists have been warning us for a long time that we need to transition off of fossil fuels rapidly. We need to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground in order to stave off the climate’s tipping point of two degrees Celsius warming before catastrophic climate destabilization, which we are rapidly approaching. And, as we know, the higher our carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, the more the Earth warms, and the worse the problem gets. The effects of this plan would mean huge newly found reserves of fossil fuels would be burned, not just by our region, but by regions all over. On the topic of the newfound reserves, Phil Rinaldi, CEO of PES was quoted in Philly.com, ”These are reserves you don’t measure in years, you don’t measure in decades, you measure in centuries.” This very quote reveals a blatant ignorance of effects of climate change as a result of long-term use of fossil fuels.
Not to worry, though, according to Dean Hughes. He was sure to note that there are environmental concerns related to these developments, and how it all “ties into climate change” (though, in his opinion, some of those environmental concerns are “overblown”). Hughes said very little more about the environment or climate change. He certainly said nothing the imminent climate destabilization and urgent need for a dramatic transition off of a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy-based economy. By mentioning the words “climate change,” it seems he thought he could avoid criticism of overlooking this important point, or otherwise make it seem as if it is being duly considered by industry. But, as well educated Drexel students, it is obvious to us that this was only a diversion from the fact that expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure will be catastrophic to ecosystems, infrastructure and availability of resources, human health and more.
Hughes also spoke about the newly established A.J. Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment, which, among other things, aims to do research into possibilities for this new energy economy and its environmental impacts and strengthen ties with this industry. He brought up examples of universities in the South that have similar partnerships with the energy industry, and have created opportunities for engineering students to come into contact with, contribute to, and ultimately find high-paying careers in those industries. And in that way, he says, Drexel is increasing the value of our CAEE degrees after we graduate– because we will be able to utilize these new connections to command high paying jobs building all types of infrastructure for the energy industry. That, according to Hughes, is what the role of the University should be in the economy and in society, rather than devoting immense resources into research on the development of clean and renewable energy and fixing the problems created by fossil fuels. An example of such a different path for a major research university can be found at Stanford, where, in 2009—7 years ago—a team from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering outlined specific ways in which each of the 50 states could fully transition to clean energy by 2030. Could you imagine where our technology would be if most research universities, especially regionally influential ones such as Drexel, took this path of focusing on solutions for a better future, rather than focusing on how to profit off of perpetuating the problems of the world’s current energy systems? Alternatives are out there; it is simply up to us to embrace them and create the future we need.
Hughes’ aforementioned assertion about the value of our degrees reveals a disheartening perspective on Drexel’s mission—that the University sees education as a product to sell to students, who should see education only as an investment on which to make a financial return after graduation. Drexel, in turn, sees this higher “value” they are producing for their degrees as an opportunity to expand their business model—attracting higher achieving high school students, lowering scholarships, raising tuition and partnering with profitable, if environmentally destructive, industries. But all at what cost? I think we know the answer.