New Energy Fuels Bass Connections

Economists wants students to solve real energy policy problems
September 30, 2014

Billy Pizer, professor of public policy, economics, and environment, and his colleague Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, wanted to find a hands-on way to engage students with the issue of emissions regulation. The Bass Connections energy-theme courses, in which graduate students and undergrads work together in small interdisciplinary groups, seemed the ideal setting in which to launch a new research project on the topic. “It didn’t take us long to settle on refineries,” says Pizer, who asked Brian Murray, director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute, to join the team. “We’d already done our own work with power plants, and refineries are likely the next industry that will be targeted. It’s a ripe question, because it’s all so new. No one has done this before.”

Petroleum refineries are tricky to regulate because they produce such a wide range of goods—from asphalt to jet fuel— using varied processes and materials. Students enrolled in the one-year Bass project had to grapple with the same questions that baffle senior researchers: How do we define the reduction requirements in a practical yet equitable way? How much flexibility should each refinery have to achieve a given environmental outcome at lower cost?

Given the current focus on power plants, Pizer says the group quickly realized they should create a list comparing refineries and power plants, and this deceptively simple document led to other insights. For instance, the team found they could define the reduction requirement in terms of key processes in refineries, providing increased equity across diverse refinery configurations, but give refineries the flexibility to achieve those reductions elsewhere, in turn addressing cost concerns.

In the spring the group presented their findings to EPA staff in research Triangle Park. “Our project didn’t have a cast of thousands,” jokes Pizer; in fact, there were a few students. “But we came up with documents that will be very useful to everyone looking at this problem—and we put ideas out there before anyone else.”

  • Louise Flynn is the associate editor at Duke Magazine.