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Marcellus Shale gas drilling panel addresses controversies

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Joe Schwartz

Gas from the Marcellus Shale presents both significant opportunity and environmental risks, but there is one question that drillers and anti-drilling activists agree upon: Is New York state capable of regulating this industry? Rick Allmendinger, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, kicked off a panel discussion Dec. 1 in a packed Uris Hall on Marcellus gas by examining the trade-offs involved and concluded with this key question, which is at the root of the controversy.

Until recently, this gas has been largely inaccessible, but with techniques called horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas companies are clamoring to tap into this resource. Development of this extensive resource could be a major economic boon to individual landowners and the battered New York economy, the panelists noted, while displacing more environmentally harmful fossil fuels such as oil and coal and lessening U.S. dependence upon foreign oil. But because various experts and environmentalists claim that drilling into the Marcellus Shale poses significant environmental and socio-economic risks, Ithaca and its surrounding communities are in the midst of a heated debate over New York state drilling regulations.

The panel discussion of experts in geology, energy, groundwater and public policy aimed to educate the Cornell community about the broad range of competing energy and environmental issues surrounding the drilling controversy.

In terms of environmentally harmful emissions, natural gas is the "least bad" fossil fuel, said Allmendinger, and the demand for it is growing fast.

Because the shale is so thick, deep and impermeable, clever drilling methods are required to extract the gas. The technique in question -- hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- involves drilling down and then horizontally through the shale formation. Fluids are then ejected into the rock at high pressures to finely fracture the rock, he said, allowing the gas trapped in the rock to be released.

Bill Kappel, from the U.S. Geological Sciences Water Science Center in Ithaca, explained that the major environmental concern involves the fracking fluid, which contains small amounts of acids, biocides, gelling agents and other chemicals. "We get back 10 to 40 percent of what is put down," he said, and this can contaminate water reservoirs.

Ellen Harrison, former director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, said, "One thing we have in this region that's phenomenally valuable is our water resource." She argued that drilling activity in New York should wait until the environmental impacts are better understood. After all, the gas has been waiting in the shale for hundreds of millions of years, and it will stick around for much longer.

"The gas is in the bank, and the price will likely go up, so there's no rush," she said.

The debate encompasses more than environmental concerns. Richard Stedman, associate professor of natural resources, and Jeffrey Jacquet, a graduate student in natural resources, stressed that the social disruption to rural communities from a "boom and bust" must be considered in the debate as well.

Anyone can contribute to the regulatory process for the Marcellus Shale drilling by commenting on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). David Kay, senior extension associate for development sociology, explained that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will accept written comments on the SGEIS until Dec. 31.

Linda Nicholson, professor of molecular biology and genetics, and other Cornell faculty will bring a resolution to the faculty senate Dec. 9. proposing a moratorium on leasing Cornell lands for horizontal hydraulic fracture gas drilling and that an advisory group be formed to advise the administration on decisions regarding the lease of Cornell land.

The panel discussion was hosted by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the Paleontological Research Institution, the Cornell Water Resources Institute and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.


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