Nov. 30, 2009

CCE, CU researchers help public understand gas drilling

Across Pennsylvania and New York state, new technologies and higher gas prices are increasing the cost-efficiency of tapping into the Marcellus Shale, a deep rock formation from earlier in the Devonian period than the rocks on campus, to extract natural gas contained in the rock. Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) has found itself on the front lines of educating citizens and communities about this issue.

Drilling in the Marcellus Shale involves a natural gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracing. Water is forced into rock at high pressure to form vertical cracks, and horizontal wells intersect the cracks to collect gas, explains Rod Howe, assistant director of CCE. This process is labor- and resource- (including water) intensive, and many citizens are concerned about its environmental consequences. On the other hand, the processes require a significant workforce, part of which could be recruited from local communities, to build and maintain wells and related infrastructure, and payments to landowners may stimulate local economies, he says.

CCE county offices throughout the Southern Tier began responding to questions about natural gas drilling more than two years ago. To answer questions, CCE takes a "public issues education approach," Howe explains, in its work with local landowners, municipalities and concerned citizens.

"Extension's goal is to highlight research-based information and sound information," and to facilitate discussions between a variety of stakeholders, says Howe, giving decision-makers at many levels the knowledge they need about gas drilling issues.

This past summer, for example, CCE educators hosted a series of public education meetings throughout the region to provide an overview of gas drilling. This was in addition to a series of webinars during the winter and spring that covered such topics as basic understanding of the geological formation, landowner coalitions, citizen task forces and environmental issues. Additionally, there was a session focused on building coalitions among community colleges, BOCES and workforce investment boards to look at workforce training strategies if drilling moves forward.

CCE also sponsors or co-sponsors larger-scale outreach efforts, such as the New York Natural Gas Education Summit, which will be held Nov. 30 in Owego, N.Y. Speakers include Cornell faculty members, local government officials, engineers, state representatives and environmental representatives.

"The summit's goals and objectives were to inform and educate, prepare for challenges and opportunities, gather information for ongoing research, and promote networking among multiple stakeholders," says Howe.

Cornell faculty also are contributing to feedback on the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a document that will serve as a starting point for state-level environmental policy decisions concerning gas drilling. Various research projects also are underway, including a three-year project funded by CCE and the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station to explore the ecological-economic-social impacts of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, emphasizing the Southern Tier of New York, but including the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania.

Danya Glabau '07 is a freelance writer in Ithaca.