For much of last semester, student and local environmental activists spoke out against gas drilling in upstate New York. Local and campus groups decried the possibility that companies would harvest natural gas located under the Marcellus Shale through the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
The groups rallied on Ho Plaza, protested on The Commons and packed the State Street Theater for a governmental hearing on the issue.
Their well-organized efforts appear to have made an impact – at least for now.
Cornell’s administration announced over break that it would not consider leasing any of the land for natural gas drilling until federal and state guidelines are established that the University considers environmentally acceptable. Cornell owns approximately 11,000 acres in Tompkins County; it also owns the mineral rights on 420, 000 additional acres of land in other parts of the U.S. according to the Marcellus Accountability Project for Tompkins County.
While hydrofracking may have the potential to be a highly profitable endeavor for the University, there are serious environmental costs and public health risks that cannot be ignored. As a relatively new technology, federal and state regulatory bodies have yet to issue definitive rules or guidelines concerning the practice.
Regardless of the outcome of these political battles, the University must handle any involvement with gas drilling on its property in a manner that is consistent with the principles of social and environmental responsibility it upholds.
President David Skorton also announced that Provost Kent Fuchs would establish an advisory committee to explore issues surrounding the University’s involvement with gas drilling. In forming this committee, Cornell has rightly sought to include faculty, staff and students in a decision that could have an adverse impact on their quality of life.
While the creation of a moratorium on leasing Cornell land for hydrofracking and the formation of an advisory committee represent positive developments, these are only the first steps in addressing the issue of gas drilling.
As an institution that is an environmental leader and values social responsibility, the University owes it to members of its community and to its neighbors to remain transparent in taking any action regarding gas drilling on its land. The consequences of the decisions involved here are too important to be made unilaterally in Day Hall. Instead, they ought to be the product of a community consensus informed by science and environmental realities.