Ray Carter | December 20, 2023
OU seeks a ‘climate justice’ professor ‘oriented to social action’
Although Oklahoma’s economy is gradually diversifying, the oil-and-gas industry continues to be both foundational and impossible to replace. State tax collections, generated both directly and indirectly by the energy industry, are a major component of state spending on things like education.
But at the University of Oklahoma, officials are now seeking a professor whose research is “oriented to social action” to tout transition to green-energy sources and “climate justice.” A transition to green energy sources, such as solar or wind, as a replacement for oil and gas would eliminate thousands of jobs in Oklahoma without an offsetting increase in green-energy jobs, based on current employment data, research, and experience during oil-price downturns.
OU is seeking to fill the professorship even as state college officials are requesting an additional $322 million in state appropriations that rely heavily on energy production in Oklahoma.
In a recent job posting for a position as an “assistant professor of sustainable energy transitions and climate justice” in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, OU officials said applicants’ research should encompass “sustainable energy transitions and climate justice.”
“The ideal candidate will employ social science and policy research aimed at advancing just energy transitions,” the OU job posting states.
A 2023 article in the Society & Natural Resources academic journal stated that the concept of “just transitions” is “rooted in labor environmentalism” as energy jobs are eliminated due to climate-change policies, and that activist groups “are extending the definition to include concepts of racial and indigenous justice.” While activists have mostly focused on transitioning countries from reliance on the oil-and-gas industry, the article’s authors noted that it “is likely that other high-emitting industries, such as animal agriculture, will also experience decarbonization and require the application of JT principles.”
Should oil-and-gas production be reduced to make way for other energy sources, it would involve the loss of thousands of jobs and massive amounts of income in Oklahoma.
A 2019 study from the State Chamber Research Foundation, “Oklahoma Oil & Gas Activity & Tax Contribution,” examined the impact of falling oil prices on the state economy and associated tax collections from the third quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter of 2016.
During that time, in which oil prices cratered and the oil-and-gas industry contracted, the oil-and-gas industry shed 21,500 jobs in Oklahoma. Earnings by oil and gas workers and self-employed proprietors declined by $8.9 billion, according to the report, and GDP in Oklahoma’s oil and gas sector declined by $22.1 billion.
The ripple effects extended well beyond those working directly in the energy industry. The report found Oklahoma lost a total of 69,800 jobs during the downturn, with household earnings declining by $30.9 billion and state GDP contracting by $51.8 billion.
The report found a $1 billion reduction in oil and gas industry GDP equated to an average reduction of $102 million in total state tax revenue at that time.
The State Chamber Research Foundation is not the only entity to note the importance of oil-and-gas production to Oklahoma’s economy.
In a 2017 public letter, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, former Gov. Frank Keating, and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Board Chairman Larry Parman opposed efforts to raise taxes on Oklahomans at that time, noting that “Oklahomans are hurting—due in large part to the significant price declines in oil and to the failures of the Obama administration’s economic policies and regulations.”
“The Oklahoma Tax Commission reports that from 2014 to 2015 Oklahomans lost more than $13 billion in taxable income,” noted Coburn, Keating, and Parman. “Further, from FY-2015 to FY-2016, Oklahomans cut their purchases subject to state sales and use tax by $4.1 billion just to survive. From September 2015 to September 2016, fully 21,800 oil and gas and manufacturing jobs were cut.”
To date, the number of jobs associated with “green” energy fields has been only a small fraction of the jobs created by oil-and-gas production.
In 2021, an article by Politifact conceded, “The sheer number of jobs that depend on the fossil-fuel industry poses a daunting challenge for any champion of renewables to argue that they can all be substantially replaced.” When reviewing jobs tied to energy production, Politifact found that the “sum of those jobs tied to fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and coal — is about 2-1/2 larger than renewables — solar, wind, hydropower and storage (think batteries and smart grids).”
If Oklahoma colleges use their state funding to attack the source of much of their funding via attacks on the oil-and-gas industry, it could strain relations with state leaders.
“Oklahoma is an energy state. We’re the seventh-largest energy producer in the nation, and it’s a role we’re proud of,” said state Sen. Lonnie Paxton, a Tuttle Republican who is a Senate assistant majority floor leader and chairs the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee. “If the University of Oklahoma hopes to enhance our position as a leading energy producer by exploring new or improved ways to harness energy from Oklahoma’s abundant natural resources, I’m supportive of it. However, if this is a state-funded avenue to denigrate the oil and natural gas industry, our state’s defining industry, through the guise of academics, that is something that I and the majority of Oklahomans would not support.”
[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.