April 22, 2010

Fracking Committee Listens to Community Concerns

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As Cornell celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, nearly one hundred students and faculty met in Call Auditorium to hear recommendations from the Cornell community about how to approach the issue of hydraulic fracturing — hydrofracking — on the University’s 11,000 acres of natural gas-rich land in Tompkins County. All but one of the twenty speakers, who included three students, advocated for no drilling on University land at the present time, and a few argued for a permanent ban on leasing the land for drilling.

The prevailing concern was the lack of adequate technology or federal regulations for energy companies to protect the land’s high environmental standards.While environmental and economic impact studies are completed and better technology becomes available, there is no harm in waiting, noted multiple speakers, including Prof. Cyrus Umrigar, physics.“The gas can only get more valuable with time,” Umrigar said. “Cornell should view the gas as part of its endowment — a part that is likely to appreciate more quickly that its other investments, a part that can be tapped on at a later time and at a reasonable pace if the technology evolves to the point where it is safe to use.”Drawing from examples in Pennsylvania drilling areas, the concern for environmental safety and the preservation of existing ecological systems came up again and again. Prof. Charles Mohler, crop and soil sciences, mentioned the need to preserve research areas on the University’s land. Drilling on the land might also aggravate climate change because leakages in methane and inefficient extraction methods leave natural gas more economically costly than oil, according to Clayton Munnings ’11.“We can all agree that this is an extremely important issue for our region and that any decision that Cornell makes regarding the leasing of Cornell’s land will impact not only Cornell but those beyond Cornell,” said Prof. Susan Riha, earth and atmospheric sciences, the co-chair of the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Leasing of Land for Exploration and Drilling for Natural Gas in the Marcellus Shale.The majority of the speakers reiterated the numerous consequences that drilling imposes on the Tompkins County region, chief among them being the diminished ability to attract tourism, students and faculty because of a decrease in the standard of living.“We have an incredibly well-developed sense of place — one that we cherish, that keeps alumni coming back, attracts student and faculty to choose Cornell in spite of the inconvenience of getting here,” said Carol Chock ’72 (D-3rd Ward), former associate director of foundation relations at Cornell. The large number of drilling sites would upset farming, roads and the beauty of the region, which would damage the image of the University and disrupt tourism-related industries like hotels and wineries, according to Chock.“It is about Cornell land that we are here, but it is also about Cornell being an exemplary institution in the state and in the nation,” said Prof. Martin Hatch, music, the chair of the Sustainability Committee. The ability to attract faculty, students. Grant money that keeps Cornell the institution that it is might be seriously affected by the drilling industry, according to Prof. Sandra Podulka ’80, onithology, who also spoke at the event.Despite the near consensus, Prof. Lawrence Cathles, earth and atmospheric sciences, disagreed with the overwhelming majority of the speakers. He believed that the University should set an example: not by refusing to participate in the hydrofracking, but by leading investment in new technologies.“I don’t think Cornell as an institution can afford not to be constructively involved. It should take the middle road, leasing some of its land and hold a demonstration project,” Cathles said. “To take the stance that we are simply not going to be involved … would very badly damage Cornell’s reputation as an academic learning institution that is designed to benefit and solve problems.”Yet, according to Riha, the prevailing comments made last night were reflective of Cornell student and faculty opinions.“I would have sided with the nineteen people who said that they were against drilling, at least until the technology improves or overall, but I was glad to hear the other side,” Greg Haber ’12 said.However, according to Riha, some staff members she has talked to in favor of leasing land may not have attended.The University announced in December that it would not lease any land for drilling purposes until federal or state guidelines established appropriate environmental standards. In February, it created the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Leasing of Land for Exploration and Drilling for Natural Gas in the Marcellus Shale to develop guidelines to advise President Skorton of how to use Cornell’s land. At the moment, there are still no plans to lease land for drilling, Riha said.The committee plans to consider all future and already-submitted suggestions, release its guidelines to the President, and allow for public comments by the end of the semester.

Original Author: Brynn Leopold