Texas, Still Wildcatting

A wood and iron platform crouches on a triangle of The University of Texas campus frequented only on six Saturdays each fall. This creaky sculpture has taken on the antique-industrial air of abandoned machinery, but it was once revered enough that traffic was steered around it. A road was split just to accommodate the old oil rig.

Today few students probably even take notice of, let alone give thanks for, Santa Rita No. 1. They know they’ve come to one of the greatest public universities in the world, but they don’t necessarily know how it came to greatness.

It was Santa Rita No. 1—named for the patron saint of impossible causes—that took The University of Texas’ buildings from pine shacks to limestone monuments. UT’s transformation from prairie outpost to powerful research hub hinged on Santa Rita spouting oil.

The resulting fortune found on UT’s West Texas lands in 1923 changed the University’s prospects forever. So it’s literal to say that The University of Texas was built on energy.

The same kind of wildcatters who hunted for oil are still with us in Texas today. They’re just betting now on wind turbines, solar panels, and algal oil. They hope to provide the world with new sources of energy—and better ways to find and use the proven ones.

Of course, wildcatters strike out sometimes. We saw that this year at UT. The University was making headlines for many of its energy initiatives, from the McCombs School of Business’ news-breaking Energy Poll to the Energy Institute’s important study on hydraulic fracturing.

Then, just as the fracking study’s findings were getting attention, study leader Charles Groat’s financial ties to a drilling company emerged. The University has convened a panel to review the study and as of presstime, it had not yet issued its results. Regardless of what the panel finds, the issue has been an important reminder to faculty to always disclose connections.

But as they have for nearly 100 years, The University of Texas’ energy interests go far, far beyond a single person or study. The Cockrell School of Engineering is pioneering research, the Jackson School of Geosciences is enabling new discoveries, and the schools of law and public policy are exploring how society should allow and regulate energy production and use, among many other efforts.

Read about these brilliant innovations and see what’s emerging from a University whose fortunes still rest in good part on energy, just as they did a century ago.

Keep pioneering,

—Lynn Freehill, Editor

Santa Rita No. 1 produced its first gusher on May 28, 1923. The well sprayed oil over a 250-yard area. After producing oil for 67 years, the well in Reagan County, West Texas, was capped in May 1990.

Photo courtesy the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

 

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