June 10, 2010

Ad hoc committee recommends attentiveness, care in land leasing for gas drilling decisions

When the time comes to make decisions about leasing Cornell lands for natural gas drilling, the university should be a responsible neighbor, a good steward of the land and a leader in efforts toward climate neutrality, according to a report released this week by a committee of Cornell faculty, staff and students appointed to study the issue.

The Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Leasing of Land for Exploration and Drilling for Natural Gas in the Marcellus Shale called on the Cornell president to carefully study all the options; to be attentive to leasing status on property adjacent to or near Cornell lands; to consider the interests of adjacent property owners and to maintain a transparent communication strategy.

The report is available online.

The committee, created by Provost Kent Fuchs and Dean of the Faculty William Fry in February, was asked to propose guidelines for the president to consider in future decisions related to leasing of Cornell lands for drilling in the Marcellus Shale. It was led by faculty chairs and included members with a broad range of expertise and involvement in issues surrounding gas drilling.

The group met weekly, consulted with experts, considered comments from the faculty, staff and students in an April campus forum and toured drilling sites in Pennsylvania.

The report recommends that Cornell only allow shale gas development on its lands if the development is justifiable in terms of the university's sustainability and climate neutrality efforts. If drilling does occur, the report notes, Cornell should thoroughly assess potential environmental impacts and take all possible steps to avoid or mitigate them, with particular care to protect unique natural habitats.

"Cornell must be a good neighbor, and we must be a good steward of the land," said Yves Parlange, professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering and committee co-chair. "[And] Cornell must be totally transparent."

While some community members had called on the committee to issue a blanket recommendation against any future drilling, co-chair Susan Riha, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the New York State Water Resources Institute, said such a recommendation would be outside of the scope of their charge. "The committee's charge was to develop guidelines for making future decisions ... not to make a recommendation for or against shale gas drilling," she said.

Riha added that she was impressed with the committee's hard work and fairness.

"We wanted, if possible, to develop a report that we all could accept," she said. "I think we accomplished this because we were in general agreement on the larger issues of which gas drilling is a component: sustainability and climate neutrality, good stewardship of the environment, and responsibility to the community."

Provost Fuchs expressed his gratitude. "I am very impressed with the committee's thoroughness, comprehensive view and inclusiveness in seeking campus community input. I also want to add my personal thanks to the committee's co-chairs for their leadership in developing this document," he said.