Don’t Frack with Cornell
Thanks to the work of environmental activism, Cornell University has put a moratorium on potentially hazardous natural gas drilling.
The northern Appalachia region might be on the brink of a natural gas boom, but at Cornell University, students and faculty are advocating against the lucrative but potentially hazardous drilling. Cornell sits on the northern portion of a multi-state deposit of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas known as the Marcellus Shale.
With pressure coming from students, faculty, and the community, the administrative leadership of Cornell announced on Dec. 23, that the university would declare a moratorium on any considerations to drill for natural gas. “The university will not agree to a process that we believe might constitute a threat to the environmental integrity of our property or that might adversely affect the quality of life of people living in the areas that would be impacted by such a process,” said a statement from the university’s Vice President of Communications Tommy Bruce.
While faculty and student believe that Cornell wouldn’t consider leasing its land, they also believe that had they not voiced their concerns, Cornell wouldn’t have made a declarative statement against the drilling. Fil Eden, a Cornell senior and the former president of Kyoto Now!, a student group that fights climate change, led a campaign to prevent drilling.
“A movement like this is happening on a community level,” Eden says. Cornell’s actions lend its support for the entire movement, he says.
Cornell’s moratorium may guide thousands of other landowners, municipalities, and perhaps universities which are considering leasing their land. The Marcellus Shale is a deep underground rock formation buried under much of West Virginia, and portions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Within the shale are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas; professors from Penn State University and SUNY Fredonia estimate that somewhere between 168 trillion and 516 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas is buried there. To put that into prospective, in 2008, the United States consumed 23.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas; this means that the Marcellus Shale could provide enough natural gas to supply the nation for 15 years at current rates of consumption.
But the drilling process is complex and controversial. To extract the gas, energy companies drill vertically into the ground then horizontally underground. This horizontal section of the well is perforated by a small explosion. Millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the well, and the pressure from the water causes cracks and fissures in the shale. These cracks allow the natural gas to be pumped out from the well. This process is called hyrdofracking, or fracking for short, and it is the focus of so much of the controversy.
The chemicals used to frack the wells are a trade secret, and combined with the millions of gallons of water needed, the Cornell community is concerned about the environmental effects.
“These fluids have been found in people’s well water,” says Linda Nicholson, a Cornell University professor of molecular biology and genetics. In December, the Pennsylvanian EPA fined Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. $120,000 because the drilling caused methane gas to leak into 13 area water wells. Homeowners could light the faucet water on fire, and there were reports of wells exploding.
“It not only threatens the water, which I think is our most precious natural resource, but it also threatens the natural beauty of the region,” Nicholson says.
Nicholson says that while she didn’t know much about Marcellus Shale when a colleague asked her to write a resolution at the faculty senate. But after educating herself, Nicholson appeared on panels, spoke at a rally sponsored by Kyoto Now!, and educated the campus about the resolution and the consequences of drilling.
“To me, this is a threat to our national security,” Nicholson says. “If someone were to take a vile of something really toxic and dump it into a river, would we call them a terrorist? That’s why our water is an essential part of our national security.”
At the beginning of the semester, Eden and Kyoto Now! decided to begin another campaign to address this issue. Rather than trying to affect change directly in the New York capital, Eden says they took the indirect approach.
“Cornell has a lot of weight in New York State as a land-grant college,” Eden says. “If Cornell thought this isn’t good enough for us yet, then maybe it’ll give pause to others in the state.”
With support from local activist groups such as the Shaleshock Action Alliance, Kyoto Now! held a rally on campus on Dec. 1, a day before their meeting with the vice president of student and academic services and vice president of facilities.
“The timing was critical,” Eden says. “We wanted to show force without being too aggressive.”
At the meeting, Eden and a handful of other representatives explained how this could affect the drinking water of the community, and it may cost more to clean up than any financial benefit from leasing the land.
“[Drilling is] short term profit over long term cost,” Eden says.
Eden doesn’t believe that natural gas is a long term solution, but it is safer for the environment than the mining and burning of coal. Natural gas is often called the cleanest fossil fuel because it produces less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that create smog.
Cornell will set up an advisory committee to investigate the current regulations and advise the university on actions in the future.
“We don’t expect that Cornell will lease its land for gas drilling in the foreseeable future,” says Simeon Moss, deputy spokesperson for the university.
Eden says he understands that other communities are being hurt by strip mining, and the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale can relieve that burden.
“If we felt we could do it more safely, then the energy we’re using isn’t risking water supplies in West Virginia or Colorado or wherever else they are [mining] for coal,” Eden says.
Tristan Fowler is a staff writer for Campus Progress.