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Planning workshop explores gas drilling issues

Students in Katia Balassiano's spring planning workshop have been helping a task force in Tioga County, N.Y., prepare for the effects of natural gas drilling.

In collaboration with Tioga Investigating Natural Gas (TING), a countywide task force formed in 2009, the students are developing strategies task force members can use to mitigate the negative effects of proposed drilling in their communities.

The proposed drilling has raised concerns and controversy over using hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that extends from southern New York state into Appalachia. The process -- also known as "fracking" -- involves pushing water treated with chemicals into wells at high pressure to crack the rock and release the gas. The waste fluids would then be treated at designated disposal sites.

The 13 undergraduate and graduate students, from disciplines ranging from natural resources to planning and public administration, were divided into four teams that focused on issues reflected by TING subcommittees: water quality; environment; roads, workforce and safety; and process and communications.

"This kind of workshop gives the students a real good flavor of how complex planning really is," said Balassiano, a visiting assistant professor of city and regional planning. "I think the Marcellus Shale issue characterizes the planning that the students are going to encounter upon graduation."

In mid-February, Balassiano and the students toured Tioga County, and sites in neighboring Bradford County, Pa., where drilling has already begun. While energy companies have been permitted to use fracking in natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, New York officials are conducting an environmental review before deciding how to permit companies to proceed.

"This is really fascinating to me to get this kind of perspective on what is the biggest issue in this area," says Nathaniel Decker, M.R.P. '11, a native of Clinton, N.Y. "To get that experience now … that's what I came to graduate school for."

Students will produce a report discussing their recommendations and present their findings to TING stakeholders at the end of the semester.

The Marcellus Shale Workshop received a $2,000 grant from the Faculty Fellows-in-Service Program to help pay for travel expenses and printing of a final report. The Cornell initiative supports faculty and undergraduates involved in community service activities.

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

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