Demonstration Highlights Concern Over Natural Gas

William Passannante, Staff Writer

Around 150 demonstrators interrupted last Friday’s trustees’ dinner in the Science Center atrium to present a letter expressing concern about the College’s plan to use natural gas to fuel the central heating plant.

Demonstrators gathered earlier at Wilder Bowl to listen to several speakers.

“This is the rally for responsible energy use,” one student said to the crowd.

College senior David Roswell, an Environmental Studies and Politics major, spoke to the crowd at the rally about some of the problems he sees in the College’s plan.

Roswell said that in trying to “get off” a coal-powered central heating plant, the College “did all these studies, and they got really great answers to all the wrong questions, and so we ended up with a lot of bad information, and we missed some really great opportunities to get landfill gas.”

“We’re not so happy that they’re burning gas at all but we understand maybe that’s what has to happen,” Roswell said. “But … what’s scary is that we don’t really know how we’re going to be getting off of it.”

He also spoke about the “zone” plan, in which different heating “zones” on campus will be taken off the central plant and powered with alternative energy.

“I think a lot of what our message is today is let’s get off of this as fast as we can. Let’s have a plan, let’s have the money, let’s have the political will to get off of here,” Roswell said.

Demonstrators then walked silently to the Science Center where they stood in the atrium during the trustees’ dinner. After Dean of Students Eric Estes introduced them, several students in formal wear assembled near a podium while College sophomore John Bergen read a prepared letter, addressed to the Oberlin College trustees and signed “concerned students of Oberlin College.”

A copy of the letter obtained by the Review underlines concerns about a perceived lack of student involvement in environmental sustainability plans and the decision to switch to natural gas and fracking, a controversial method of methane extraction. The letter urges the Trustees to further develop plans for the proposed energy zones.

The students peacefully dispersed shortly after the reading.

Prior to the demonstration, a petition sent from the Student Senate e-mail address asked students to consider signing to express concern about the “decision to switch from using coal to using natural gas to heat campus buildings.”
Chair of the Board of Trustees Clyde McGregor, OC ’74, wrote an article published Tuesday in The Sourcethat includes a response to the students’ petition.

“[W]e are carefully considering the effects of the central heating plan and all feasible alternatives. We intend in the coming months to formulate plans to minimize our use of natural gas over time, and we will engage students and other campus community members in our ongoing efforts to develop these plans,” the response reads.

Some students expressed concerns about fracking in relation to the central heating plant.

“What’s really important to me is that I’m concerned that the trustees aren’t fully aware of the implications of fracking,” said College sophomore Jackson Kusiak.

Kusiak cited illness and earthquakes as potential consequences of fracking.

Bergen, who helped organize Friday’s demonstration, thought that many students want a clear timeline of transitioning off natural gas. He believes that a timeline is important because it provides something to hold the trustees to.

President Krislov said that while there aren’t, to his knowledge, exact dates, a plan is in the works.

“[Director of Sustainability and Energy Management] Rob Lamppa has been developing a multifaceted zone plan which utilizes various forms of energy, including the giant PV [photovoltaic] array that we erected this fall. … And as part of this multifaceted plan, there is some transition that will involve natural gas,” Krislov said. “We, I think, don’t have exact dates for when natural gas will be transitioned away from, but the idea is to try to minimize reliance on natural gas and to also look at other forms of energy.”

Krislov also reaffirmed “our commitment to carbon neutrality. … We have consulted with experts in and out of the institution and will continue to do so.”

Cindy Frantz, associate professor of Psychology and chair of the Committee on Environmental Sustainability, elaborated on the zoning plan.

“Throughout the next … 10 to 15 years, we will be doing zones. … [We will be] pulling pieces of the campus off the central heating plant and using renewable heating solutions,” she said. “And in a way that’s responsive to the latest technological developments.”

With regards to concerns about a lack of student involvement in the decision to switch to natural gas, Frantz said, “I think students believe that had they been more involved, the outcome would have been different, and I don’t believe that’s true.
Every other alternative to natural gas was considered, and there were major problems with all of them. We tried really hard to get landfill gas from the landfill. That would have been ideal. They wouldn’t sell it to us. They tried for two years to do that.”

Frantz emphasized that the College worked hard to resolve the heating plant issue.

“The problem is, if you’re a trustee, are you going to listen to professional engineers, or are you going to listen to students?” Frantz said.

Frantz, who said that she was unhappy that the College was going to use natural gas, offered a course of action for concerned students.

“What I think students need to do and can do is push the institution really hard to do energy efficiency as fast as possible and to do the zones as fast as possible,” she said. “That’s the way to get us off fossil fuel.”