Benefits of Transition to Natural Gas Questioned

Rachel Weinstein, Staff Writer

Oberlin College is currently gearing up for a new sustainable installment — the replacement of the central heating plant’s coal boilers with new natural gas-fueled tanks. For years, the College has been dependent on a central coal burning plant to heat academic and residential buildings on campus — a solution that only some find acceptable. Separated into multiple zones, buildings on the northeast side of campus will be the first to utilize the new natural gas energy. The initiative will officially break ground next Monday, beginning with the construction of the site for the new boilers.

“[Rob Lampaa, director of sustainability] put forward a plan in the last year and the Board of Trustees voted to approve of the overall concept,” explained Associate Professor of Psychology Cindy Frantz, chair of the Committee on Environmental Sustainability. The decision to shift to natural gas is just a small step in the College’s long-term commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.

“A long term solution for making all of our buildings efficient is something we’re chipping away at slowly but surely,” explains Frantz. “With the exception of a few, everyone involved would really like to not be using natural gas or any fossil fuels.”

In the next several years, the College plans to take the next step in their 2025 initiative — the switch from natural gas to ground source heat pumps, a method already utilized in the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building and the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. While many argue for the immediate implementation of ground source heating pumps, the Board of Trustees are uncertain of the quality of the heat pumps currently installed in the Kohl Building and Lewis Center and claim that the campus’s soil quality is not sufficient for geothermal energy.

“Many students argue that we should install the ground source heat pumps now instead of natural gas, but there are reasons we can’t,” said Frantz.

Even with a commitment to move forward, many members of the community are dissatisfied with the new energy initiatives.

“It just makes little sense to invest a lot of money in a new system that you plan to replace five to ten years later. I’m skeptical we will be able to reach our 2025 commitment,” said David Roswell, OC ’13, a student representative on the Committee on Environmental Sustainability.

Students of various organizations, such as Oberlin’s Anti-Frack initiative, have followed the Board of Trustees’s decision to find alternative energy solutions very closely and many share Roswell’s sentiments.

“There’s little transparency in regard to the Board of Trustees,” says Anti-Frack member, College senior and Politics and Creative Writing major Alice Beecher. “Students are given little opportunity to work with the Board and reach these decisions.”

In addition to a lack of transparency on behalf of the Board of Trustees, many campus environmentalists take issue with the 2025 operation as a whole.

“Switching from coal to natural gas decreases our carbon emission by 50 percent. While that seems to be a big improvement, this number only tells us about the emission of carbon,” said Beecher. She explained that although the implementation of natural gas would drop carbon emission substantially, the Board fails to address issues of water and air pollution.

“They’re only showing some of the statistics. There are a lot of numbers that are not shared when presenting the data and these numbers are just as important,” explained College junior Emma Charno. Beecher, Charno and many other students of the Anti-Frack organization believe the Board undermines the effect that the burning of natural gas will have on communities outside of Oberlin where the gas is produced.

“While this cause may seem cleaner for our immediate community, we are destroying others. This is more than an environmental issue. This is actually an issue of social justice,” said Charno.

When asked about ideal solu- tions for the future, Roswell remained skeptical.

“The problem is not even the solutions we have, but root much deeper into institutional flaws,” he argued. “The Committee on Environmental Sustainability is just a hub for people who care about the environment to hold discussions. The power we have over the Board is not very strong.”

Even with a number of raised brows, Frantz remains hopeful.

“Students need to understand and trust that this is an intermediary step. We discussed many solutions, and for now, the natural gas system will allow us to be a lot more responsible and a lot less wasteful,” said Frantz. Depending on weather conditions, Oberlin’s campus could be deemed “coal free” as early as March 2014.