Experts argue the pros, cons of "fracking" at Maxwell debate

More than 160 people attended the event, which was part of a debate series sponsored by the Campbell Public Affairs Institute.

The debate about whether New York state should allow hydraulic fracturing continues—and on Friday evening, it came to Syracuse University.

Students, faculty and community members filled Maxwell Auditorium to watch four experts argue whether hydraulic fracturing causes more harm than good, as part of the debate series sponsored by the Maxwell School’s Campbell Public Affairs Institute.

Photo: Emily Shearing
Syracuse University students and community members cast their ballots for or against hydraulic fracturing following the debate.

Environmental groups and scientists have raised concerns that hydraulic fracturing-- or “fracking”-- a method of extracting underground natural gas, can pollute the water and air. Advocates in favor of fracking say that it is a preferable alternative to coal and can create jobs.

Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Institute, started the debate by introducing the participants and the topic, acknowledging that the state could have rendered the debate moot if it had finalized hydraulic fracturing regulations by the Nov. 29 deadline. Instead, New York’s environmental department issued a revised set of proposed regulations on hydraulic fracturing and filed for an extension to allow more time to complete a health review and impact study.

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, and Paul Gallay, president of the water advocacy group Riverkeeper, argued that fracking creates harm.

Howarth started the debate by arguing that hydraulic fracturing generates more greenhouse gases than coal. Howarth performed the first comprehensive analysis of shale gas’ greenhouse footprint, but his findings have been hotly contested, most recently by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He concluded by highlighting fracking’s potential to pollute air and water, and argued in favor of alternative energy sources. “I think it’s time that we recognize that we’re in the 21st century. We need to kick our century addiction to fossil fuels, move ahead into a renewable future,” he said.

Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, expanded upon Howarth’s comments about fracking’s potential harm to health, citing a Duke University study that discovered methane in wells near fracking sites. “Coal kills, but you want to trade one ill for another? Move to fracking,” he said.

Tim Whitesell, Town of Binghamton supervisor, and Ed Hinchey, a geologist and consultant, argued against the proposition.

After laying out how coal causes health and environmental harm, Hinchey said he supports renewable energy development, but it will not be enough.

“I would prefer quick-cycling, methane-burning gas turbines to coal. You can’t turn a coal plant off; you can cycle a gas plant up and down quickly,” he said. He added that more than 100,000 hydraulically fractured wells have been installed since 1996 without major incidents for an undertaking of such scale.

Binghamton Supervisor Tim Whitesell rounded out the first part of the debate by arguing that fracking can create jobs and rejuvenate the economy. He pointed to the success in Susquehanna, Pa., where the hydraulic fracturing industry created 240,000 jobs.

After the debate concluded, members of the audience had the opportunity to ask the experts questions. One woman’s question about fracking’s exemption from significant regulation, as well as alleged industry plans to sell gas overseas, received applause.

Another question, asking Hinchey and Whitesell whether they would change their minds if science proved that fracking causes harm, roused laughter when Hinchey responded, “The beauty of science is that it is never settled.”

Following the debate’s conclusion, audience members, who voted before the debate began, indicated which side they supported after hearing both arguments. Community members made up the majority of the crowd, but some students attended the debate and stayed for the reception afterward to hear the vote tally. Many students came in undecided and left with a clearer opinion on fracking.

“I didn’t know anything about hydrofracking before the debate, so I thought it was interesting,” said Andie Irons, an environmental science master’s student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 

“I came in more on the environmental side, and I left more on the affirmative side. Mostly because I felt the nay side was ignoring the environmental effects and was just saying it was scare tactics,” he said.

Nicole Harbordt and Ian Shick, both SUNY-ESF freshmen, said they were neutral before the debate. “But after, I’m definitely more against hydrofracking,” Harbordt said.

“I think what changed my mind was there are so many more viable options. There are really no reasons to do hydrofracking,” Shick said.

Harbordt added that more renewable energy sources meant more jobs for students who are studying environmental science.

The final vote tally suggested the debate swayed a few people’s opinions. Before the debates, 135 thought fracking causes more harm than good and 32 thought the opposite. Seven people were undecided. After the debate, 146 thought fracking causes more harm than good and 22 thought the opposite. Three remained undecided.

Get on with the fracking already!

All very well and good for the professor to urge us "to kick our century addiction to fossil fuels."  But can the technological revolution that he proposes begin somewhere else?  Like Texas, California, metropolitan New York CIty or some other still-wealthy outpost of mid-20th Century industrial advancement?  In upstate New York, the penurious residents need all the highly remunerative private employment they can get and cheap, relatively benign BTUs promised by hydrofracking. Please take your laudably idealistic but senseless social engineering to some other environ where the local natives might find it more affordable.

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