Western's Huxley College of the Environment is extending its program from two years to four years, and may also add an area of study focused on energy.
“One of the things Huxley is doing is moving more toward a four-year program for [Huxley] students instead of just a two-year program in the junior and senior year,” said Steven Hollenhorst, the dean of Huxley College. “We’ll be engaged with students from the very first quarter they come on to campus and have a curriculum that goes across the full four years.”
Hollenhorst was hired as the new dean of Huxley in September 2012 and is planning with the Huxley faculty to develop an energy-focused curriculum along with the four-year program, he said.
The changes are a result of climate change taking a prominent spot in the national politics.
President Barack Obama pledged to respond to climate change during his second inaugural address on Jan. 21, claiming it would be a betrayal to future generations not to combat climate change.
Environmental agencies are awaiting Obama’s decision to approve or reject the construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska.
Obama rejected the construction of the TransCanada pipeline last year, since it would run through “sensitive terrain” in Nebraska. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has since approved an alternative pipeline route.
Looking at energy alternatives is one of the most important ways to combat climate change, Hollenhorst said.
“We’re committed to getting an energy curriculum going that’s interdisciplinary and that isn’t just in Huxley, but involves faculty from all across the university,” Hollenhorst said. “One of the reasons for that is a lynchpin issue in climate change is energy.”
The new energy program is expected to have two sides, including an energy policy focus and an energy science focus, Hollenhorst said.
“Depending on what a student is interested in, they could get engaged in looking at energy issues and true energy climate issues from both a policy and a science perspective,” he said.
Currently, there is an energy policy minor. The goal is to have the energy science program and the energy bachelor program developed within about one year, Hollenhorst said.
There has been discussion within Huxley College of possibly bringing the former environmental journalism major back when the school budget increases, Hollenhorst said.
“We’re really open to looking at bringing back the environmental journalism major with the journalism faculty and we’ve had several talks about that,” he said. “We just have to look at the whole budget picture at the university, and as it improves that’s something we can look at doing.”
Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline believe the pipeline could create more than 9,000 American jobs, but environmental agencies believe the environmental consequences are too great.
The country is highly dependent on liquid forms of energy and will be for a long time; therefore pipelines are an energy efficient method to transport oil, Hollenhorst said.
“The fact of the matter is we depend on pipeline systems in this country, and we are going to depend on those pipeline systems for a long time,” he said.
Western senior and student on the Board of Trustees, Joseph Meyer is pursuing a double major in economics and environmental studies. The source of the oil that would be transported through the Keystone Pipeline is the real issue, Meyer said.
The tar sand oil is the dirtiest oil produced on the planet, according to the head of the Sierra Club, Meyer said.
“I don’t think there’s as much of a risk in the transportation of the oil,” Meyer said. “It’s really more the basic idea that we shouldn’t be developing a really dirty source of oil.”
Hollenhorst echoed Meyer’s sentiment, saying dependence on fossil fuels is the concern, not necessarily the pipeline itself.
“What we mind is that it’s petroleum that is moving through those pipes,” Hollenhorst said. “What we have to be concentrating on instead is finding other sources for those fossil fuels. Could we find a more bio-regional, sustainable use of supply of energy to supply us with these liquid fuels?”
The first step is to gain public awareness on climate change, and Obama should do the same thing that universities are doing by raising awareness on climate change for the current generation, Hollenhorst said.
“The president can be a spokesperson for that,” Hollenhorst said. “Universities can help educate about what’s going on with the climate and bring science to the matter, so that we can understand from a science perspective.”
The pressure is on Obama from both supporters and critics of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the State Department is expected to present their final review and recommendations to Obama by the end of March.
“No matter where you live, climate is the environmental issue of our time,” Hollenhorst said. “It’s just as important for a little kid growing up in Bellingham as it is for an old person in the developing world.”