Interview with Richard Chuchla: Innovators in Energy Education

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
In the Ellenburger: Studying the Ellenburger reservoir (Longhorn Caverns)

Innovative graduate programs prepare students to be flexible professionals who possess strong technical backgrounds, as well as the ability to think critically from a number of disciplinary perspectives. Welcome to an interview with Richard Chuchla, Director of the Energy and Earth Resources graduate program at the University of Texas.

What is your name and your experience in the energy industry?

My name is Richard Chuchla. I retired as an executive from ExxonMobil in 2015 after a 35-year career with the company. I have broad experience in minerals (base and precious metals), coal, oil and gas exploration, development, research and management, including a corporate assignment as a senior upstream strategic advisor to the corporation’s Management Committee and CEO. I have had the good fortune to work in basins and participate in discoveries around the world.

What are you involved with now? Why?

In 2016, I became Director of the Energy and Earth Resources graduate program at the University of Texas. My retirement plans never contemplated leaving the earth sciences or my network of wonderful friends and colleagues or the opportunities to continue learning. In my current role, I can accomplish all of those “selfish” objectives. Equally important to me, at this stage of my life, is giving back to the university where I got my graduate education and sharing my knowledge, skills and experience with students who aspire to exciting careers in energy.

Please describe the energy program at the University of Texas. What makes it different?

EER started 37 years ago and was prescient in its concept. It is the only truly multidisciplinary graduate program at the University. It is administered by the Jackson School of Geosciences but its 35 faculty come from the Cockrell School of Engineering, the McCombs School of Business, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the Law School and the Energy Institute. We have approximately 50 students (50% U. S., 50% foreign) committed to multidisciplinary studies (including a core curriculum) and concentrations in technology, policy or economics/finance. The program offers a Master’s degree and requires a thesis. We also offer the option of a dual MBA/EER degree and two dual policy degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

How does the program prepare people for the future of energy?

Our tag line is “multidisciplinary studies for interdisciplinary solutions. ” Beyond the early-stage of my career and, certainly, during my time in management, it became very clear that neither technology nor policy nor finance alone solve significant energy problems. Effective energy solutions are inherently interdisciplinary. We think of our business too much in the context of technology yet some of the most intractable problems in energy are at the interface between energy development and society. Or, sometimes the solution hinges on a creative financial solution that achieves the proverbial “win-win”. Usually, it’s a combination of all of these approaches. EER’s goal is to prepare students with the knowledge and know-how to effectively address these very real multidimensional challenges and develop sustainable, interdisciplinary solutions.

How can young professionals be involved in renewables as well as non-renewables at the same time?

The energy world is very different from the one confronting graduates of my generation. It is much more complicated and diverse and offers many more career options. It is also changing much more rapidly than before. Externalities that were barely mentioned in my day (e. g. CO2) are now staring us in the face. I urge readers to read the full cost of electricity study done by the Energy Institute at UT. Look at one of the county-by-county maps of the United States and consider the incredible diversity of supply options for electric power. This represents the huge diversity of career options. So, I think it’s essential that students, perhaps before they become young professionals, have a general understanding of energy alternatives. Renewables are here to stay and we are better for it. Oil and gas will continue to play a major role and we’re better for that too. I think that at some point, many companies that are currently exclusively focused on oil and gas will become energy companies offering a broader portfolio of energy solutions. Whether you end up in the oil or the renewables business, you will have to stay abreast of energy developments wherever they are happening if your goal is to optimize energy solutions. While you may be a geoscientist by education, think of yourself as an “energy practioner”.

Many companies have not had the success they have strived for in renewables. What is different now? Why are so many companies committed to renewables?

Texas Edge presentation in Mexico City: Discussing energy challenges with Dr. Michael Webber and Ambassador Garza in Mexico City.
Texas Edge presentation in Mexico City: Discussing energy challenges with Dr. Michael Webber and Ambassador Garza in Mexico City.
Renewables differ greatly from oil and gas. They are driven by a different business model and different technology. You could ask the same question about shale resources, a much smaller stretch for oil and gas companies than renewables. Majors lagged smaller companies for the same reasons: shale required application of different technologies and a different business model. The mantra, post the late 70’s failed oil company diversifications, was “stick to the knitting”. However, “the knitting” has changed in big ways. Climate change is a near and present danger. Technology has dramatically lowered renewable hardware costs, a trend that will continue. Battery costs are in the technology crosshairs and will likely provide another boost to renewables. Government policies in many countries, including the U. S. , are providing significant subsidies. The introduction of carbon taxes (or cap and trade) in some countries and the expectations that others may follow is an incentive for renewables. All of these factors have attracted a large group of international companies, not just investors in renewables but also in related industries like automobiles. Oil and gas companies are revisiting this opportunity space. They are reasonably wary of a currently subsidized business which is more beholden to swings in public policy and generally less profitable but you are seeing them commit increasing capital to renewables.

Please describe the ways in which your program addresses the notion of a vertically-integrated solution that is environmentally responsible and sustainable at each point along the chain.

The structure of the EER program speaks to this issue quite well. Aside from a core curriculum which every student is required to take and which provides foundational knowledge and skills (e. g computational data analytics, decision analysis, finance, geologic controls of Earth’s resources), every student must take at least one course in the technology, policy and economics/finance concentrations. There are many courses that are focused on the environment. The Environmental Science Institute, is three floors above our office space. While sustainability or the environment may not be the focus of each EER course, the collection of courses and the thesis are designed to teach integrated solutions which, I believe, is the only way to achieve sustainable solutions. Sustainable and environmentally responsible solutions must be technologically, politically and economically sustainable.

What are your plans for the future?

I really don’t know. I grew up in the shadow of the El Salvador porphyry copper deposit in Chile and got my graduate degree in volcanology fully intending to study and explore for ore deposits. I ended up spending most of my career looking for oil and gas. So, my professional life, though deeply satisfying, has been a bit of a random walk. I hope that continues. There will, no doubt, be another challenge and surprise that awaits. I’m very happy with my current role as an educator and the interaction that brings with both students and faculty. In a very real way, I am also a student again and I can’t begin to describe how much I have learned in the past year and a half. Finally, I’m enjoying the flexibility of a life where I can devote more time to my wonderful wife, children and grandchildren!

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