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How did Texas become the leading producer of crude oil and natural gas in the United States? Who consumes these products? Why is Louisiana the country's biggest consumer of energy? How have human engineering projects and industry pollution impacted communities in the Gulf Coast? Spending some time on Google or in the library could provide information, no doubt. But in November, a group of 12 Dartmouth community members — eight students, two student leaders, and two Sustainability Office leaders — traveled to Texas and Louisiana to get an in-depth, on-the-ground perspective on these and other questions related to the energy landscape of the Gulf Coast of the U.S. as part of the Irving Institute and Sustainability Office's Winterim Energy Immersion Trip.
The 10-day trip took participants to fossil-fuel and renewable energy generation sites as well as into the communities that shape and are shaped by these industries.
Over the course of their travels, the group visited industry sites, like the ExxonMobil refinery in Houston and San Antonio's Marathon fracking site as well as EDP Renewables, a solar and wind energy company, and wind farms near Corpus Christi. They also met with local politicians and community members in Texas and activists, scientists, and community members living on the Louisiana coastline, which has been degraded by pollution, oil spills, human engineering projects, and sea level rise caused by climate change.
The participants prepared for the trip during the fall term at Dartmouth, meeting for six education sessions that laid a basic foundation for understanding the energy and society issues — from a background in fossil fuels, to an overview of the ongoing degradation of the Louisiana coastline and its impact on surrounding communities — they would encounter on the trip.
Once on the ground, trip leaders framed each part of the trip with questions. Questions such as "Do you foresee our hydrocarbon dependence changing in the near future?" and "What are the best sources of electricity generation?" and "What are the main factors contributing to wetland loss?" helped participants focus their inquiries and integrate and process the vast amounts of information they took in each day. Meanwhile, at the end of each activity-filled day, the group met to reflect on what they saw and learned.
Students consistently report that energy immersion trip experiences are powerful and transformative, helping them make connections to local energy issues and inspiring new career trajectories. The 2019 trip was no different. Meeting with the people who work in these industries and whose communities are deeply intertwined economically and environmentally makes a deep and lasting impact on how participants think about energy in context.
For example, as Jenn Chen '23 said, "After the Gulf Coast energy immersion trip, I started to seriously consider a career in energy because our need for energy will never disappear, but the level at which we consume it and the ways in which we create it can and will change. I was able to learn so much about our current energy system, including the seen and unseen impacts of the fossil fuel industry, and attempt to see a path forward. Also, I was blessed with the best trip members, and it's great bumping into them on campus!"
Stephanie Cynn '22 said that the trip opened her eyes to different perspectives. "I went into the trip with a rather pessimistic view on the oil and gas industry; I thought that it was almost too late/complex to make any grand changes with the general public's energy consumption. However, this trip made me hopeful that there are actually economically feasible ways to incorporate clean energy before the ultimate environmental deadline or even before gas/oil runs out. The nightly discussions also really allowed me to expand my focus points and reminded me how intricate the energy economy really is.. . . I really learned and owe much to this experience and to the people who shared it with me."
For Jack Jacobs '21, the experience significantly enriched his understanding of energy in context. "The trip, overall, was an incredible melding of different experiences, but all with the common thread of energy. From the rugged drilling operations of the Texas oil fields, to the sleek corporate offices of America's oil and gas leaders, to the quiet primeval beauty of the Louisiana bayou, I really feel like this trip painted a full picture of the energy world."