ENV 712A: Hydrocarbons: Production to Policy

Tour Houston Museum of Natural Science Energy Hall
by -- October 11th, 2013

While I can’t speak for all students on the trip, I know that I certainly enjoyed the 85 degree breeze that greeted me as I stepped outside Houston airport. It was a warm welcome to the city as I left behind a cold front in Durham and haze of midterms.

For those of you that haven’t visited Houston, the city is exemplary of the saying, “Everything is bigger in Texas.” The city spreads what seems like an endless stretch of corporate parks, strip malls, and cowboy-boot shops. A welcomed enclave in the city is Hermann Park, which borders the Medical Center and Rice University. Housed within the park are the Houston Zoo, the Miller Outdoor Theatre, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Upon arrival at the Museum of Natural Science, our group split into smaller numbers and were led on a tour through the Energy Hall. The experience was a firm reminder of the value of visual and hands-on learning. Although I read and see photos of drill bits and Christmas trees, it facilitates a new dimension of understanding to actually see and touch the equipment. My favorite display was a series of containers that held the equivalent weight and viscosity of light and heavy oils. Visitors turned a wheel to move the oil through a filter and can actually feel how much less resistance Arabian Light crude has in comparison to Venezuelan Heavy crude.

The visit to the Energy Hall was a great introduction to the complexity and technical requirements of the oil & gas industry. It also gave me a sense of just how polarized this industry can be in terms of environmental impact. Our docent, a retired gentleman from the industry, stopped in the middle of his talk to say, “I know that y’all are from the environment school…” He began to speak about the debate over whether to drill in Alaska. He said that if we were to use the entire energy hall to represent that land mass in Alaska, the area that the industry wants to drill is about the size of one postage stamp. I was struck by his inclination to start such a conversation as no one in our group had asked a single question about the industry’s environmental impact. It reminded me of the need for more individuals who can bridge the conversation between so called “environmentalists” and oil and gas enthusiasts. In reality, there is a spectrum of opinions where a binary system is counterproductive.

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