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FALL 2010
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Feature: Applied Social Sciences

Concerns Ignite about Drilling Deep for Gas

Researchers unearth the benefits and hazards of ‘hydrofracking’ for communities in the Marcellus Shale.
By Sheri Hall

Natural Gas Flame

A rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale—and proposals to extract its large, untapped natural gas reserves using a process called hydraulic fracturing—have ignited a political firestorm in the state of New York, with many communities organizing vehement protests.

Faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They have stepped up their research and extension efforts to help individuals and communities make decisions about the benefits and dangers of this new form of natural gas drilling and to think about broader energy development scenarios.

“This has been a best-example of a land grant university at work,” says Rod Howe, assistant director of community and economic vitality for Cornell Cooperative Extension and executive director of the Community and Regional Development Institute.

Open meeting
University Photography

Susan Riha leads an open meeting on Marcellus Shale drilling.

Howe is a development sociologist by training. With urging from county-based educators, he was instrumental in creating the Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Resource Center two years ago when it became evident Marcellus Shale drilling would be a major issue in New York.

Today, the team comprises approximately 12 faculty members from a wide array of disciplines—including sociology, environmental sciences, and geology—and 20 extension educators who dispatch information to individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments. They have also briefed state and federal officials on the issue.

“Our goal is to communicate the evidence that’s available and help people evaluate the risks involved,” Howe says. “We’re not making a recommendation either way. We are about providing accurate and, when possible, research-based information.”

That means understanding diverse interconnected issues like the economic benefits of drilling, the environmental implications, how drilling will change the character of communities, and what it will mean for local farmers.

“It’s not just a simple equation of economic benefit versus environmental risk,” points out Rich Stedman, MS ’93, associate professor of natural resource policy in the Department of Natural Resources, and an environmental sociologist by training. “There are broader quality of life issues at work as well like crime, congestion, noise, and taxes. All of these elements impact one another. We constantly hear concerns about whether these communities will be good places to raise families.”

Environmental Effects

Energy companies have known about the gas in the Marcellus Shale for more than 100 years, but have only began drilling for it in the past 20 years since the development of new technologies and the depletion of conventional gas deposits.

Drilling into the Marcellus Shale is more complicated, costly, and potentially hazardous than conventional gas drilling because the gas is trapped in the rock instead of pooled in a reservoir. To release it, companies must push water, fine sand, and chemicals horizontally into the Marcellus layer, creating fine cracks that allow the gas to escape. This requires more land, equipment, and labor than conventional gas drilling.

The risks involved are difficult to assess and quantify, explains Susan Riha, the Charles L. Pack Professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the New York State Water Institute.

Riha is one of the founding members of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Resource Center. Two years ago she organized a meeting on the possible environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “hydrofracking,” for the New York governor’s office state guidelines for drilling. “There are questions about whether water quality will be impacted during hydrofracking, but there is a low probability of that happening,” she says. “A more likely problem will come from chemical spills on the surface.”

The challenge, Riha says, is communicating levels of risk to the public. For example, some people are concerned about high levels of salt in the water used in drilling that will flow back to the surface after hydrofracking. “But that level is hazardous to our water supply far less than the salt that is used on New York roads in the wintertime,” she says. “When you’re talking about an issue that people are passionate about, it can be difficult to convey risks accurately.”

Transforming Communities

Other likely consequences of drilling deal with its impact on communities. That’s where sociologist Stedman comes in. His work focuses on how rural communities make decisions about their natural resources. Stedman came to Cornell from Pennsylvania State University, where companies are already drilling into the Marcellus Shale.

“We have learned a lot by watching Pennsylvania go through this,” he says. “Although the process is still emerging there, we also have data from other states like Wyoming that show increased drilling is linked to more demand for emergency services like ambulances, as well as higher rates of crime.” As part of their outreach efforts, Stedman and his colleagues are helping communities gain a foothold with model ordinances that will help local communities control some of these factors.

Another outstanding question is how much economic benefit communities will reap from drilling.

“There are many factors at work,” Stedman says. “It’s hard to predict how gas will be converted into dollars in communities. There will be some new jobs, certainly, although the number will vary according to the phase of the development. Other money will come to the landowner through leasing payments, but the real impact to communities may depend on whether this money is spent locally or ‘leaks’ out. There’s an old saying: It might be raining money, but does the community have any buckets to fill?”

Stedman is working with colleagues at Penn State to assess the perceptions of communities impacted by drilling. They’ve conducted qualitative interviews and a survey of 6,000 property owners in communities in Pennsylvania and New York that are or could be impacted by drilling.

“Our results, among other things, show very low levels of trust—of both companies and of the government,” Stedman says. “Trust of academic institutions is slightly higher, but still not where we’d like to see it.” Interestingly, trust is no higher or lower in places where gas extraction is further along, suggesting that—despite the rhetoric—outcomes aren’t consistently worse or better than what people are expecting headed into the process.

Future of Energy Development

As communities in New York wait for the state to issue its final guidelines on drilling, Cornell Cooperative Extension is expanding its focus to help communities make decisions on broader energy development scenarios.

“We keep getting told we are going to need to make some major energy transitions, but at a local level, it’s clear we’re not ready for that,” Riha says.

The Cornell researchers have launched a major project, funded by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, to study the impact of energy development on rural community sustainability.

“We’re essentially looking at how to measure energy transitions from a system perspective,” Howe explains. “What are the cumulative economic, social, and ecological impacts of green energy-based initiatives on a regional level?”

The idea is to work ahead to gather evidence on various scenarios before any more specific proposals or local controversies arise, Stedman says. “In the meantime, we are trying to work with community task forces to keep updated on all of these issues,” he says. “We want them to be as prepared as possible to make informed decisions when the time comes.”