Panel Discusses Future of Natural Gas

Robin Wasserman, News Editor

Four panelists discussed issues surrounding the use of natural gas last Monday in the second event of a four-part series on how to reach the College’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2025.

Associate Professor of Psychology Cindy Frantz said that “natural gas is not an acceptable long-term solution,” but that it is still the most likely short-term source of energy for the College as it heads toward carbon neutrality. The panel, which Frantz said had been organized in response to students’ request for a dialogue on natural gas, addressed issues that confront how the College can use natural gas as a transition fuel.

“We’re stuck, I’d say, between a rock and a hard place and a dagger and a gun,” said Frantz in her introduction. “[We have] a lot of different, really difficult issues to confront no matter which way we turn. In a way, that’s a really exciting educational opportunity and intellectual challenge, but it also presents a social challenge for us to come together and vigorously debate and yet constructively work through solutions to these really difficult problems.”

The four panelists were Nolan Moser from the Ohio Environmental Council, Professor of Economics Jordan Suter, Adam Peltz from the Environmental Defense Fund and Eric Belcastro from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Though the talk was organized because of the College’s move to carbon neutrality, the speakers provided more background on natural gas and the issues surrounding its extraction.

Moser spoke first on the political landscape in Ohio, focusing on a new gas and energy bill put forward last year.

“People see [natural gas] as a huge economic opportunity and as a long term jobs and cash cow,” Moser said.

Moser emphasized that the new bill included several controversial measures, despite Governor John Kasich’s claim that it contains one of the strongest sets of regulations in the country. The bill includes a provision that would allow drilling in state parks and a gag rule on doctors that would make it difficult for them to discuss natural gas extraction’s effects on health.

“We’re essentially down to a one-party government in Ohio, which does have an impact on environmental legislation,” Moser said. Suter addressed the possibility of creating an alternative market for frack-free gas, in which Oberlin could potentially participate.

“I think such a market is feasible, but I don’t think it would necessarily have a dramatic impact on the environmental outcomes that we care about,” Suter said. “Putting in place such a market, if it doesn’t have an impact on reducing the environmental impacts of the natural gas that we consume overall, is probably not worth pursuing.”

Part of the reason such a market would be difficult to establish, Suter explained, is that it is hard to cleanly differentiate between natural gas obtained through fracking and natural gas that has been drilled by conventional means. Unlike apples, which can be labeled individually as organic or not, the supply lines of natural gas cannot be easily differentiated.

Peltz highlighted several ways that policy can be used to limit the environmental impact of gas extraction, including laws that require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals in their fracking formulas and the monitoring of the amount of methane leakage.

Belcastro, rather than emphasizing different ways to work with and change the policy, spoke on the role of communities in creating change.

“I would ask you [to go] from thinking of your roles as consumers over to thinking of your role as … sovereign people in communities, that are capable of actually making decisions in their communities, especially decisions that have a direct impact on safety and welfare,” said Belcastro.

He emphasized that the laws governing environmental issues are mostly premised on issues of commerce, ignoring basic human worth.

“None of these laws recognize any inherent worth to nature or labor,” said Belcastro. “Those laws actually produce a culture, after generations of this culture of activism, that basically accepts this basic premise as its beginning point.”

To Belcastro, progress in the environmental movement cannot come from writing letters to congressmen, but from each community working to create the best possible vision for themselves.

“We think that people deserve a little better than just surrendering,” he said.

After the talk, each speaker had a break out session with students to discuss each topic in more depth.

College first-year Arthur Davis said that he wished the talk had concentrated more directly on the question of what the College will do about heating in 2015.

“There was a lot of dancing around that issue without diving into it,” he said. “There was a lot of good background and context for that question, but I wish we had gotten to talk about that issue a little bit more.”