Appalachian Basin

Cornell Hosts Hydraulic Fracturing Debate

Cornell University was the site of a debate on hydraulic fracturing recently where two panels of advocates on either side discussed the basics of natural gas development.  There were also some interesting sideline activities when one of the panelists called another an “industry” hack after being unable to defend his own report. 

We took a trip to Ithaca last week so Tom could participate in a debate on hydraulic fracturing and the role of natural gas development with respect to global warming (euphemistically renamed “climate change” to ensure everthing contributes to the case).  Two panels of involved parties went head-to-head debating three questions regarding natural gas development, followed by a question and answer portion.  The pro development panel included John Holko, Nancy Schmitt, and Tom.  The anti-gas side included Walter Hang, William Podulka, and Robert Howarth

It was an excellent educational opportunity for the 80 or so students and 2o+/- activists present.  There were also some other observers, including Lawrence Cathles, the Cornell professor who has sharply criticized Howarth’s work on methane emissions.  Cathles, of course, is only one of many to critique the Howarth and Ingraffea paper, but his presence may well have been the reason Howarth offered little in defense of his conclusions in that report, other than to assert, reassert and assert again he had complete confidence in his work, without offering details.  Howarth did get defensive after the event, but more on that later.

Overall, the debate, sponsored by the Cornell Forensics society, was a very civilized discussion of the type desperately needed to make sense out of the hyperactive talk surrounding natural gas development and energy issues.  Professor Sam Nelson served as moderator and did a superb job ensuring the debate was both fair and interesting.  The debate was organized by Ryan Yeh and coordinated by Kirat Singh, students at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Brief Introduction to Panelists

John Holko – President of Lenape Resources, a company with 30 years of  involvement in the exploration, development, gathering and marketing of oil and natural gas resources in the Appalachian basin, with a primary focus in the states of New York and Pennsylvania.

Tom Shepstone – Planning and research consultant with experience has conducting studies and preparing economic development strategies for numerous New York State communities; also serves as Campaign Director for Energy in Depth’s Northeast Marcellus Initiative.

Nancy Schmitt – Engineer, management consultant and investment manager who has spent most of her career working in the energy business, including working as a petroleum engineer in the oil and gas industry for 10 years.  Also the writer of a blog titled “The Energy Mom.”  Read her review of the Cornell debate here.


Panelists For the Development of Natural Gas

Pro-Gas Panel (Holko, Shepstone & Schmitt) 


Walter Hang – Owner of environmental auditing firm called Toxic Targeting that is partially funded with Rockefeller family money.  Worked for 12 years with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a Ralph Nader group serving as a rainmaker for trial lawyers.  Lives in Ithaca and has been following horizontal hydraulic fracturing for 4 years.

William Podulka – Is a physicist at Cornell and a member of an anti-gas group known as Physicians, Scientests and Engineers for Healthy Energy.  Research expertise is in plasma confinement for fusion power generation.  Also has served as chair of Residents Opposing Unsafe Shale-Gas Extraction (ROUSE), an anti-gas group.

Robert Howarth – Biochemist and ecosystem scientist.  Has performed widely panned research on the greenhouse gas footprint left by shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale.  Also a member of the Biofuels Committee of the Ecological Society of America.


Against the Development of Natural Gas in New York

Anti-Gas Panel (Podulka, Howarth & Hang)


Interestingly, only Holko and Schmitt had any actual experience with oil and gas development, although everyone had interesting points to make from the perspective of their particular experiences.  The following video highlights what each said about themselves.

Following the introductions, three questions were debated one at a time, with one member of each panel taking the lead in presenting and the panels collectively rebutting what was said.  The format worked well and provided for excellent exchanges.  Here’s what was said:

Question One:

How does fracking effect the local environment health and wildlife?

Holko led off and indicated his experience indicated the regulations now in place are designed around minimizing impact and mitigating issues. (1:00)

Walter Hang attempted to refute Holko’s argument by talking about brine pits previously used when dealing with the produced water generated from oil and gas development but neglected to mention these are rapidly becoming a thing of the past or that in northeastern Pennsylvania a majority of the operators are able to recycle 100% of their produced water with ever more looking to shift to this approach.

Hang also, in a repeat performance of an earlier schtick that was debunked by DEC, talked about spills that have occurred and have been reported to DEC over the years implying these spills were a common result of natural gas development.  And, here’s what Nancy Schmitt had to say about that assertion:

Any spill over 5 gallons needs to be reported to the DEC in New York State.  There are on average 16,000 spills reported to the DEC and when you are looking at those 75% of them have to do with either gasoline, diesel,  heating oil, and lubricant.  If we were not using heating oil in the state which is basically diesel we would not have all these spills. (10:00)

See the full debate on Question One below:

Question Two:

What are the economic effects of fracking and how does it effect America’s energy security?

Physicist Podulka (the first professional anyone would go to for economic analysis) had first crack at this question and had this to say:

Resource extraction is not a good driver for economic success.  I am not claiming that there hasn’t been a success story out there somewhere, but I will tell you that the odds aren’t very good… with shale gas drilling there tends to be a few big winners while the average citizen looses out.

Podulka seemed to be asserting the only winners in natural gas development are those able to lease land for development.  He is, apparently, wholly unaware of what is happening across the border in Pennsylvania as small rural towns such as Montrose and Towanda, not to mention Williamsport, are now flourishing with property values there rising.  He likewise made no mention of the value to consumers of the Marcellus Shale being so close to major markets and thereby being able to substantially lower their fuel costs.

See the full debate on Question Two below:

Question Three:

How does shale gas impact our society’s fight against global warming/climate change?

Tom noted conversions to natural gas have resulted in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions dropping to levels last seen in 1992.  Therefore, if there is a global warming problem, natural gas is the fix.

If were going to be serious about this, if we’re really going to focus on reality, China is bringing on one new coal plant every week.  Every week; that’s the reality.  They are going to do that.  We have an opportunity here to do something better with natural gas. – Tom Shepstone

Howarth tried to refute by stating methane contributed more to global warming than carbon dioxide.  He also claimed the top producing industry for methane emissions is the natural gas industry.  Tom explained, however, Howarth’s calculations  assumed everything that doesn’t end up with end users is a methane loss to the atmosphere.  Howarth failed to take into account a large percentage of what doesn’t make it to end user is actually used to run the equipment along the way.  Interestingly, Howarth never addressed this specific challenge in his rebuttal, even after being virtually asked to do so. Rather, he just kept asserting he was correct without addressing the point.

See the full debate on Question Three below:

Questions & Answers/Closing Statements

Following the three questions the audience was given a chance to ask the panelists questions.  Watch the question and answers part of the debate below:

After the questions and answers part of the debate each side was given a chance to give closing statements.  This produced an absolutely incredible statement, without foundation or any evidence whatsoever, from Howarth:

Most of the gas production is within the first year.  If you want to keep a field producing you need to be re-drilling and re-fracking at least every second year. -Robert Howarth

Howarth’s statement is just not true.  It’s demonstrably false, in fact.  Cabot Oil & Gas have been developing natural gas from the Marcellus Shale since 2008 and has yet to re-fracture a well and there’s zero evidence it’s occurring to any significant extent in any shale formation.  Yes, it is true the most gas production occurs within the first year but this is due to the gas having to later travel from further out in the formation to reach the well bore.

A gentleman in the audience also queried as to what the urgency was in developing natural gas.  Tom responded in his closing statement on behalf of the pro-natural gas panel.

I want to talk about something we talked about earlier; what’s the urgency to develop natural gas?  I will tell you what the urgency is.  There are a lot of people in New York and Pennsylvania that are hurting.  They are not hurting here in Ithaca because you have Cornell.  I want you to go out to Schuyler County, Steuben County,  and some of these other areas that are suffering tremendously. – Tom Shepstone

Tom’s point went to the fact we have seen hydraulic fracturing done correctly in Pennsylvania with great economic benefits to residents.  It’s now time to bring that economic prosperity over the border and into New York.  As the President and Vice President of Cornell said:

We cannot put this genie back in the bottle. Fracking is already being carried out across the country. And shale basins have been identified on six continents, making fracking a truly global issue. The questions before us are not only whether to frack, but how, where and with what safeguards in place. – Forbes Magazine

The Post-Debate Debate

Nancy Schmitt tells the story of what happened post-debate in her blog post when she suggested Howarth retract his erroneous report, but here’s the relevant part:

Howarth defended the work.  He doubled down saying that his new findings will show plumes of methane coming off natural gas fields, which have been aerially photographed by both Purdue and Cornell Universities.  He also shot back with some wicked humor snidely insinuating that anyone who disagrees has “methane coming out of more places than we know.”

After the debate, everyone shook hands in a show of sportsmanship.  Panelists on either side continued talking in pairs and small groups.  I thought Howarth would drop the disdain and engage the criticism showing intellectual curiosity worthy of a professor.
He did just the opposite.
When I asked whether he would work with an industry advisory committee, he replied that he didn’t need one.   When I asked about including a petroleum engineer among his co-authors, he replied that he already had one, Tony Ingraffea. When I asked if and when he was going to retract his paper, he went into a tirade about how he had spent his life doing real science unlike “industry hacks” like me.
Each question caused him to get more agitated, drawing closer and closer.  By the time it was over, he was standing so close to me that I felt personally threatened.
So why would a tenured professor at an Ivy League institution stoop to name calling and physical intimidation?  Is this education?  Or is it indoctrination?

It’s unfortunate an excellent debate ended with such ignorant remarks (his actual words were “lady, you’re just an industry hack”).  Nonetheless, emotions can get the better of all us at times.  What is far more worrisome is the fact this man is conducting research and making conclusions about the natural gas industry without even deigning to ask questions of knowledgeable industry personnel.  When Tony Ingraffea, rock expert and fellow anti-natural gas activist, is your project petroleum engineer, the outcome isn’t much in doubt is it?


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