Duke Energy Initiative | November 19, 2014

Energy’s impact on the environment is a subject of increasingly intense debate. Fight fracking or encourage the use of natural gas to generate power? Build the Keystone XL pipeline to import crude oil from Canada’s tar sands, or risk seeing it shipped – and spilled – elsewhere?

A new course at Duke University seeks to replace the passion in those arguments with analytical strength, giving students the data tools and critical thinking skills to find informed, balanced answers.

Sexton observes as a student makes a presentation in his class.

Sexton observes as a student makes a presentation in his class.

The course (Applied Energy Economics, PUBPOL/ENERGY 590S) is one of several additions for Fall 2014 to the wide array of energy classes available across the Duke campus. It’s taught by Steve Sexton, one of Duke’s seven new energy faculty members.

In an area that is exploding with abundant, rapidly developing – and sometimes confusing and contradictory – data, Sexton aims to teach his students to think analytically about energy policy questions and recognize reliable sources of information for their arguments.

“With the proliferation of energy-related data, there is also a proliferation of research using it – and not all of it is good research. We need to be able to discern credible empirical research,” he said. “I view it as a class designed to equip students to either be good producers of economic policy research or consumers of it.”

Sexton and Matt Harding are joint appointees of the Energy Initiative and the Sanford School of Public Policy. Five more new energy faculty members are affiliated with the Fuqua School of Business (John Buley and Bryan Bollinger), Pratt School of Engineering (David Mitzi and Mike Lynch) and a new University Fellows program (Jim Rogers, formerly CEO of Duke Energy).

Rogers is teaching one of this semester’s new courses, “Renewables and the World’s Poor: Meeting the Needs of 1.2 Billion People Who Lack Access to Power” (ENERGY 790). Other new classes cover energy law and finance.

Sexton competes in a triathlon World Cup in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary. Photo by International Triathlon Union.

Sexton competes in a triathlon World Cup in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary. Photo by International Triathlon Union.

Sexton earned his bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees at the University of California-Berkeley. But his interest in energy and environmental policy was piqued as he trained and competed around the world in a bid to join the USA Triathlon team for the 2012 London Olympics.

“You’re sometimes training in places where the environment is not a top concern,” he said. “That’s how I observed the result of poor environmental regulation.”

When he narrowly missed the cut for the Summer Games, Sexton finished his doctoral degree and then joined N.C. State University as an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics.

He was lured across the Triangle to Duke by the breadth of energy-related study taking place here and the opportunity to work with colleagues who are exploring similar topics from dramatically different frames of reference.

“People are doing interesting work on energy and environment across the university, from Nicholas (School of the Environment) to Law, in public policy and engineering, and in economics,” he said.

He specifically hopes to work with Duke researchers investigating the economic, environmental and policy impacts of hydraulic fracturing to extract shale oil and gas – from his own perspective, of course. “The question that interests me is the regulation of fracking,” Sexton said. “I’m trying to determine the right balance of regulation. Policy must ensure environmental and human health safety on the one hand, but not strand a valuable resource underground and under a thicket of regulation on the other hand.”

As with many energy classes at Duke, the 16 students in Sexton’s course come from a variety of programs – masters’ level students from Pratt, Nicholas and Sanford; undergraduate; and a Ph.D. candidate.

The course began by developing their analytical and advocacy skills, teaching them to produce sound empirical analyses by employing state-of-the-art econometric techniques and to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in research that informs their arguments.

In the second half of the course, the students will debate current energy topics such as the Keystone XL pipeline and regulation of hydraulic fracturing. “I try to pick contemporary, hot-button questions to keep it interesting,” Sexton explained.

“Hot button” notwithstanding, students are expected to approach their arguments with sound reasoning that looks at all the consequences of a decision.

“For example, with Keystone, should we build the pipeline or not – it’s a policy question that environmental energy economists are well-equipped to answer,” Sexton said. “If they don’t have the U.S. market, do they still produce the oil and transport it somewhere else, which could cause even greater environmental problems? The balancing of those factors is the work economists do.”

Hydraulic fracturing raises similar questions: When is the danger of environmental contamination at a fracking site outweighed by the broader societal benefit of using a natural gas instead of coal for energy generation?

“It’s an interesting regulatory challenge,” Sexton said. “At the end of the class, the students will have to make a credible argument for one of these viewpoints.”