January 20, 2010

Univ. Officials: No Plans to Lease Cornell Land for Gas Drilling

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This story was originally published on Jan. 19, 2010.

University administrators announced last month that shale drilling for natural gas will not take place on Cornell property until “federal or state guidelines on natural gas drilling are established that conform” to the University’s “high environmental standards.” In addition, an advisory committee of faculty, students and staff will be chosen to create guidelines for future environmental decisions. The announcement, made by Tommy Bruce, vice president for university communications, ended months of speculation about the University’s policy on shale drilling.

“The University is not considering such leasing,” Bruce said. “[We] will not agree to a process that we believe might constitute a threat to the environmental integrity of our property.”

Student environmental group KyotoNOW welcomed the University’s decision to await the outcome of further research before acting on the issue.

“We’re excited that the Cornell administration agrees with us,” the group’s vice president, Alex Gore ’12, said in an e-mail. “More research and regulations need to be brought to the table before any serious decisions are made.”

Bruce also announced that Provost Ken Fuchs will establish an advisory committee comprised of faculty, students and staff to “investigate” the issue and ultimately guide the administration’s future decisions.

“We expect to appoint the committee in late January or early February, after classes resume,” Fuchs stated in e-mail. “We will ask that the committee create a report that will provide guidelines for the president to use in making decisions on issues related to leasing of Cornell lands for shale drilling. The report will be due by the end of the semester.”

Fuchs made clear that while the committee will establish important guidelines on how these “decisions should be made,” the issue of shale drilling has already been decided, at least for the time being.

“I do not expect that Cornell will lease its land for shale drilling in the foreseeable future,” Fuchs said.

Shale drilling has stirred many in the Cornell and Ithaca communities in the past several months. Though the Marcellus Shale, a huge formation of sedimentary rock that lies under much of New York and Pennsylvania, was discovered in the 19th century, recent developments in drilling technology for natural gas led many companies to take a renewed interest in acquiring drilling rights in the region. However, these new technologies are controversial because they can potentially contaminate the water supply.

Gore hopes that the committee will take an active role in “the decision-making process,” an opinion shared by many Cornellians.

“We as an academic body really need to stand up on this,” Prof. Peter Davies, plant biology, previously told The Sun.

In November, the Faculty Senate tabled a resolution that would have asked the administration to create a committee with the power to determine whether Cornell would lease its land to gas companies. The resolution also argued that the University administration should try to persuade the New York State government to ban horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Bruce’s announcement indicates that the administration has chosen to side, at least for now, with environmental activists, giving groups like KyotoNOW cause for celebration.

“They are doing exactly what we asked them to do,” Gore said.

Gore also anticipated that the administration would become “more communicative with the community about their plans” for shale drilling. Although the City of Ithaca held several public hearings on the issue, the University did not officially participate. As a large institution, Cornell could become an influential ally to the many Ithacans who oppose drilling.

Because Tompkins County lacks the power to regulate drilling, individual landowners can decide whether or not to lease their property to gas companies. Alderperson Jennifer Dotson (I-1st Ward) lamented this situation in a previous Sun story.

“One would think the local communities…would get some say,” she said. “But we’re not even notified.”

However, Gore predicted that Cornell’s involvement, in addition to provoking the government to regulate gas companies, might encourage individuals to refuse to lease their land.

“Hopefully this moratorium will send a message to other landholders,” Gore said.

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen