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Fracking: The Cornell Conundrum

I’m not sure what to think or who to believe about the risks and challenges associated with extracting natural gas from shale.

The controversy and the emotions over hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are hot and show no signs of cooling off, especially in Ohio and other shale-rich states that are just beginning to explore their natural gas reserves.  Even as projects are moving forward, regulators are scrambling and communities are living in the moment, it seems that neither the proponents nor opponents have exactly figured out their “story,” let alone know how to communicate it clearly and consistently.

And the technical folks aren’t much help either.  Look at what’s happening at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  One group of Cornell researchers, led by Professor Robert Howarth, believes that the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is “perhaps more than twice as great” as coal over a 20-year timeframe.  Their theory is that methane, which can leak at the well, is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (assuming you believe in climate change at all, which, of course, is a totally different discussion).

On the other hand, Professor Larry Cathles is arguing that natural gas is cleaner than coal because it doesn’t produce by-products such as sulfur, mercury, ash and particulates.

This January 19, 2012 Associated Press article summarizes the “house divided” situation at Cornell.  Although technically focused, both groups seem to recognize the significance of the public relations and communications challenges associated with their findings, rebuttals and ongoing debate.  (Read one of Cathles’ latest rebuttals to check out the tone of the PR battle.)  Naturally, the two researchers' funding is coming from opposite sides of the debate.

This may be a fascinating case study in academic inquiry and interest group-sponsored research, but it’s mostly frustrating for the rest of us.  Whom do you believe?  What’s the real story?  What do we do next?

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