Here's what academia should be doing

If you're a professional with an academic mindset, as I am, then one of the interesting things you'll find is the vitual absence of oil and gas expertise at the major, and particularly Ivy League, universities.  This includes the Andlinger Center at Princeton (my hometown); the Energy Institute at Hass, at Berkeley;  the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, which is all climate and no energy; and virtually all the Washington DC universities (although Steve Levine, who writes at Quartz and teaches at Georgetown, is quite knowledgeable).

The Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford is something of an exception, as it has an Energy Department.  If you want to learn reservoir analysis, they teach it there.  On the other hand, one is hard pressed to find an 'Energy and the Economy' course, and the word oil doesn't come up much in the macro side of things.  Sustainability, climate--they appear dozens of times. 

My alma mater, Columbia University, has a decent energy program with a few people who actually understand oil.  It also has access to the New York professional community, including oil traders and investors.   As a consequence, it actually has a few instructors who understand the practical importance of fossil fuels.  On the East Coast, this is the place to study energy.

The problem with the general tack of academia--one focused on the environment, sustainability and climate, and by implication, power--is that is misses the fact that some 80% of the world's energy is provided by fossil fuels, and the fracking revolution means that oil and gas are center stage, and will remain so for a while.  So institutions like Haas and Andlinger have expertise in everything except what matters, and they are turning out students who will be under- and mis-educated.

Here's an example from California.  In California, legislators are mulling the legalization of self-driving cars and struggling to define 'safe' in that context.  Now, this is a public policy issue you could see coming a long way off, and a perfect topic for centers like Hass or Andlinger.   But if you're all wind turbines and solar cells, this issue is not on the radar.

And furthermore, you won't see relationships.  Why is it that Google, which had been ambivalent about the commercialization of its self-driving technology, is suddenly keen to partner with an auto manufacturer--just when the price of oil collapses? 

The reason is this: Self-driving technology pairs best with electric vehicles.  Here, for example, is Google's version of a self-driving car (the "Dorkmobile", as I like to call it.).  It's electric, and for a lot of good reasons.

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype Source: CNET

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype

Source: CNET

Now, if oil is cheap, then electric vehicles are essentially doomed, and Google's Dorkmobile is doomed, too.  And Google senses this, so it's trying to get some industry traction to keep the project moving forward.

But if you don't have oil and gas expertise in your university, then you won't understand either the appeal of a Dorkmobile in a high oil price environment, or the risks to the project that cheap oil represents.  And that's the problem that academia is facing: an extraordinary emphasis on topics of limited importance, at the expense of what actually matters.