​​In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Ann Bluntzer, who was appointed executive director of the TCU Ralph Lowe Energy Institute in March, discussed the plans and goals of the institute, which is part of the TCU Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Bob Francis: This is Bob Francis with the Fort Worth Report here with Ann Bluntzer of the TCU Energy Institute. I wonder if you’d introduce yourself?

Ann Bluntzer: I’m the executive director at the Ralph Lowe Energy Institute, which is housed at the TCU Neeley School of Business. I’m a professor in the department of management. I get to teach our students in the business school and a few outside of the business school, different classes in business management, and then a lot of coursework in energy, geopolitics of energy. We look at sustainability solutions and energy. Teaching environmental, social, and governance issues are some of the classes that I get the honor to teach here at the business school.

Francis: How many students do you have at the institute? 

Bluntzer: Our undergraduates, right now we have about 80 students who are minoring in energy. So they’ve declared a minor and they can be any major. It can come from the College of Business, or it can be Strategic Communication. It can be an education major, science and engineering. Whatever their major might be, they can declare energy technology as a minor. Those students, I tend to get in some of my classes. Then we have graduate programs that focus on energy as well. We have an MBA in energy. Then we also have a certificate program for folks in energy sustainability, in ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues. So, those are our three main academic pillars, as it relates specifically to energy.

Francis: I know  the institute recently moved under the auspices of the Neeley School. Can you tell me a little bit about why that change was made and what that change means?

Bluntzer: The Energy Institute at TCU has a storied, fantastic past. It has its own legacy, I would say. It was borne out of the success of the Barnett shale and the generous donors that wanted to see TCU have an institute that was focused on energy. It has that history over the last 15 years and was a standalone institute for a long time. It moved over to the College of Science and Engineering when we had a new provost change and they wanted to see all the institutes housed within an academic home. So, it went there for a little while. Then I think because Neeley, in the business school, was having some great success with their Energy MBA Program and really focusing on energy specific curriculum, it made sense for it to actually move over to the business school. Which I think has been an exciting opportunity, selfishly, because I love talking about energy through the business lens.

I think you are going to hit all the disciplines. You can talk about it through science and engineering. You can talk about it through communication. You can talk about it through the business lens. Energy touches every college on our campus in some way, shape, or form, we have people doing work in that space. So, to have it housed under business and to say, let’s look at these issues through the business lens and how we can help solve them, and come up with solutions for a stable and economical energy future. You know, it makes sense that Neeley has it and I’m excited about that.

Francis: Fort Worth has a long history in the energy industry, but I know you are also looking at different types of sustainability and other types of energy, as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Bluntzer: I think the most important thing, first I should have mentioned this to begin with, is yes, those families that have had that history in the fossil fuel space, are, you know, we just renamed our institute, the Ralph Lowe Energy Institute, that’s because of the generosity of the Ralph Lowe families. Specifically, Mary Ralph Lowe, who said, “I want TCU to do more in energy and I want to be able to support that.” And so, we honored her with naming it after her father, because of that investment. We’re also very aware that it’s going to take every bit of new technology, every ounce of energy, whether it’s coming from under the ground, or whether it’s coming from a windmill, or whether it’s coming from hydro. Wherever it’s coming from, we’re going to need all of it. We’re going to need more energy to meet the demands of the world, to meet the growing population that we’re going to have.

I like to say we’re energy agnostic here. We want to depoliticize the conversation around energy. We want to provide a platform where no matter how you’re contributing to this space, we can help you. And we can either help bring in the faculty. We can help develop the students so that when they’re leaving here, they’re going to work in careers that are diverse in the energy space. We have board members from NextEra Energy in Florida, that are really helping us update our curriculum, to the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy. So, it really is a diverse future. It’s going to take everything to do what needs to be done to make sure everybody has what they need to have a quality of life that they deserve.

Francis: One of the stats I saw recently noted that Texas led the nation in production of fossil fuels. But it also led the nation, I believe I’m correct on this, in alternative fuels, as well, and alternative energy also. 

Bluntzer: I think almost 40 – I mean this number shifts a little – but a significant amount of our power generation in Texas comes from wind. I think there’s only a few other states that are even close to us in that, which is interesting. I think most people will immediately think of Texas and the Permian, and the Eagle Ford, and the Barnett shales and think everything must be coming from under the ground, oil and gas, and that’s not the case. A significant portion comes from wind. Solar is growing quite a bit. There are lots of large tracts of land along the coast, and in South Texas that are currently under negotiation for big solar farms. It’s going to be a diverse mix on the power side, for sure, how we produce power, and how we power this state. I think it’s important for everybody to know. We want to be the institute that’s representing all of those sources.

Francis: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background.

Bluntzer: I grew up around this area, in Glen Rose, Texas. I was really excited after a 20-year career of moving around the world in the foreign service, doing graduate school in South Carolina, living and teaching there for a long time, having some really interesting projects with different government agencies and nonprofits, on land work, and land conservation over the years. I’m passionate about that. At some point, I decided I wanted to come home to Texas and you know, what could I do with my passion for the work I’m interested in? But then with my PhD and my graduate work, and I knew I wanted to teach, that was the thing that I got the most excited about. Fortunately, I got a job at TCU and was able to move back home, and be here and get to teach every day, which is very exciting.

This is a new opportunity, to be able to interface with industry. To be able to interface with our students, and interface with higher education and try to bring those three worlds together, in a purpose of promoting energy. So, it’s a different job than my teaching job, but now I get to do both. I’ll have to teach a little less and do a little more of the outward facing work in the community. I go to Washington, D.C., on Monday. I’m going to be talking with the American Petroleum Institute. I’m going to be talking with the Atlantic Council. Really trying to get TCU and energy noticed, outside of North Texas.

I’m excited about that opportunity. Thrilled to be the voice for that, for the university. We’re doing some great things here in Texas, and I want to make sure that we are talking about that, in the places where some real change can happen with policy. So, I’m excited to have that new challenge and bring my world of my past experience in the geopolitical space, and tie that in, to energy and TCU, and try to get us a bigger platform.

Francis: How do you think you can do that? Is there research you all are doing that you think can shed some light on what’s going on in the energy world? 

Bluntzer: What we did immediately when the institute moved over to Neeley is, we spent six months on a strategic plan. And we did that with outside stakeholders, people from industry. We did that with faculty experts here on campus. We did that with some of our students and then some of our board members. And over that time, what we realized is we have some amazing research going on here at TCU under each of the different colleges. And so, we realize what the institute maybe needs to do a better job at, is supporting these different sectors and trying to find a platform that we can bring it together and then showcase it. So, for example, we’ve started this program called the Faculty Fellows. So right now we have five Faculty Fellows that are TCU full-time faculty, but they are Ralph Lowe Energy Institute Fellows, and we have chosen them to help elevate their research.

And we have Manochehr Dorraj, from the department of political science, who does a lot of writing and thinking on what’s happening, geopolitically. He and I have been doing a lot of cross-authoring, or co-authoring on what’s happened in the Ukraine, and the effects that has on energy. And so, this geopolitical economic expertise that we weren’t really pushing out there before. We have Dr. Mike Slattery in environmental science, our climate scientist, who is able to come in and say, here’s the science, here’s the research and provide that expertise. But then you mix that with someone from the business school who’s saying, okay, but we still have to be able to have a profit here in order to have a business. And you get those two worlds coming together. Whereas, typically they weren’t talking. Right? We had some silos here.

And so, our hope is we’re bringing these experts together and then able to highlight that. So my work on Monday, I’m talking specifically with the American Petroleum Institute, on doing some cutting-edge, first research that has not been done yet, on financial modeling around ESG issues; the environmental, social, and governance issues, for oil and gas companies. There are models out there right now, but they are not specific to different sectors of different industries. And really trying to build one that works for oil and gas companies, to be able to do their reporting. When I talk about what we might be doing in the research space and why I would even be up in D.C., it’s to do that,and to come up with some new and interesting solutions.

I think because we’re in a business school, we can come across as less political, or we don’t have an agenda. We’re really looking at, how do we make this economically viable? How can we also be a good steward and promote clean energy, but also how do we do this and make sure our businesses are still running and are profitable? So, I think it’s a refreshing perspective when you get into these conversations about energy and net zero, and how do we get there? We’re trying to not make it political. I think people want to hear that.

Francis: You would think businesses would also be more accepting of something that it’s coming from a business school, than say coming from some outside group that’s telling them what they think they ought to do.

Bluntzer: I think it removes that bias, which opens up a whole other level of conversation. And we saw that at our energy symposium that we hosted here a month ago. We brought in 23 experts from all over the world and packed it in for the day. And there was a lot of diverse conversation going on in that room. It was not a stale day, to say the least. You got to hear from everybody, from the big banks in New York, to our own geothermal professor here at TCU, to the Atlantic Council, I think the most reputable think tank in D.C., when we talk about energy security globally. I mean, it was fascinating to hear their perspectives, and it was in a very respectful way, all thinking moving forward. How do we solve this? And I think because we kept saying, let’s put this in the business lens. Let’s not talk about these controversial things. Let’s stay in the lane of business. You’re able to move further and faster that way, when you can remove those barriers. That was thrilling to see how those dialogues came together, to that outcome.

Francis: Your timing had to be about right, that was about when energy prices were going up. The Ukraine crisis was nearing a boiling point. So, I can’t leave the Energy Institute without asking this question. What do you see happening, in terms of energy prices and just the energy situation at the moment?

Bluntzer: There hasn’t been a big change, right, in what’s going on in Europe. I mean, Europe is in an energy crisis. There’s no denying that. And when you have an economic driver like Europe, and that’s happening, that affects everybody for a while. I think the barrel price has stabilized a little bit. We’ve been hovering around $100 a barrel here. That’s healthy. It’s not $140, which is what we were at, which isn’t healthy. That can cause some really long-term issues with inflation. I think we’re not going to see a huge shift immediately. We’re not dropping down. I mean, I think we’re going to be hovering around $100 for a little while, which is not OK, long term. It’s great for people that are in this industry and they know how to ride the highs, to get through the lows.

And so, this is how they survive. So, I hate it when we talk poorly about big oil making all this money right now. We can’t forget that in the next bust, which we will have one, it’s the most volatile commodity in the world, that we give them a little grace to ride the median on this. I think that’s going to stick for a while. I don’t think we’re going to see a big difference at the pump anytime soon. Even if we come to a solution that everybody could be happy with between Ukraine and Russia, you’re going to see Europe continuing to try to retract from relying on Russian gas, which means they have to get it from other places, which means supply’s going to continue to be an issue. Which means the price will stay up a little bit longer.

Francis: Another question I can’t leave without asking is, the Permian basin has continued to be a big producer for the… I don’t know, the past five or 10 years maybe. Do you see that continuing to grow?

Bluntzer: Very much. Very much. I think they’re in the best spot they have ever been, in the 100 years of exploring out there. They’re well capitalized. Everybody did a very good job over the last five years of becoming more efficient, becoming more environmentally friendly. I mean, when you drove out there five years ago, everybody was flaring. And now, most of the majors aren’t at all, the ones that have wells out there. It’s certainly gotten better. So, they’re well capitalized because they haven’t been overspending. They found ways to be more efficient. They can do more with less, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. They’re in a good spot right now. They really are. I’m excited for that industry. And what that’ll mean for them. They’ve ridden two busts in the last 10 years and survived it. Most industries couldn’t do that and recover like they have. So, they’re well poised to, I think, take on the burden of having to continue to increase supply.

Francis: Is there anything else about the institute you’d like to say?

Bluntzer: I didn’t start with this and I probably should have, and our mission here for the institute is developing the human capital for the future of the energy industry. We are 100% everything we do, whether it’s outwardly facing or inwardly facing, is all in the spirit of, how do we prepare our students for a career in this industry. And we’re trying to do that. You’re going to see us all over the place where it’s a different TCU Energy Institute than it was before. We’re just going to be out there quite a bit more, but that’s all in the spirit of, how do we get our students in front of industry? How do we build a relationship with industry, so we know what we are providing our students is what they want and what they need. Energy is just volatile, it’s just what it is. And so, the whole idea, the more that we can do that, and the better that we can prepare our students, I think the better off the energy industry’s going to be as a whole. And then, what does that mean? It means energy’s more secure, energy’s more reliable, energy’s more affordable, energy’s more accessible, all over the world. And that, I don’t think, anyone could argue with, only creates and increases quality of life. And that’s a win-win.

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Robert Francis is a Fort Worth native and journalist who has extensive experience covering business and technology locally, nationally and internationally. He is also a former president of the local Society...