Cornell University Flunks Fracking

It's been a big year for Cornell University. Its Big Red wrestling team spent lots of time atop the nation's rankings -- a tall hill to climb for an Ivy League school in any sport. Now, the university is garnering all sorts of attention for a research report it just released on the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The research was conducted by a team led by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, which sits above the Marcellus shale, a big shale formation that runs beneath much of New York and Pennsylvania. Companies such as Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK  ) , Ultra Petroleum (NYSE: UPL  ) , EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG  ) , and Range Resources (NYSE: RRC  ) have produced substantial amounts of shale gas from the Marcellus.

The Cornell research has led to the first peer-reviewed report on methane emissions from unconventional gas. It resulted from comparisons of estimated contamination for shale gas, conventional gas, both surface- and deep-mined coal, and diesel oil.

In summarizing his group's findings, Howarth said, "The take-home message of our study is that, if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil."

The main culprit in hydraulic fracturing is methane, the primary component of natural gas. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, tends to leak into the atmosphere during the fracking process.

The group zeroed in on shale gas for specific reasons, according to research team member Tony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering: "We are highlighting unconventional gas because it is a contemporary problem for us in upstate New York, and because there is a big difference between developing gas from an unconventional well and a conventional well, for the mere reason that unconventional wells are bigger."

It's logical to expect similar environmental concerns to span the globe soon. For instance, gas has recently flowed from a shale well in India. And in Europe, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) has concessions in Germany and Poland, Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) is also in Poland, and Total (NYSE: TOT  ) has a presence in Denmark and France.

Back in New York, however, alluding to the low ranking of shale gas versus the other fossil fuels against which it was tested, Howarth said, "We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible."

That's clearly something we'd all like to have occur. But for now, reality dictates that the likes of ExxonMobil and Chesapeake will lead the energy parade for many years -- if not decades -- to come.

Chevron and Total are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Range Resources is a Motley Fool Inside Value choice. The Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil and Range Resources. Motley Fool Alpha LLC owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies whose names appear in the article above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2011, at 6:53 PM, devoish wrote:

    A better title might have been "Fracking Flunks out at Cornell".

    Your title says Cornell flunked, when in fact the article says fracking flunked.

  • Report this Comment On April 13, 2011, at 8:25 PM, mlrinc10 wrote:

    This is a flawed study. The author even says there are alot of assumed unknown variables. Being from Oklahoma, I hope you yankees keep finding/creating issues with fracking so we can have more drilling/royalty income here in a state that knows what it is doing.

    Fracking is only as safe as the driller. Oklahoma has an energy resource board created by a small percentage of royalty payments from owners of the mineral rights that pays for any and all damage done by any drilling. Energy independence would free up enough money to solve these solvable problems. Just look how environmentally unfriendly the first conventional wells were in the early 1900's. Natural gas still burns cleaner than all other fossil fuels and nuclear is just too catastrophic when it fails.

  • Report this Comment On April 17, 2011, at 9:46 PM, cladd wrote:

    The Cornell Report is sure to add to the fracking controversy that we see in full flight in France (which is to have a parliamentary vote to to ban shale gas and shale oil development) and gaining more attention in Germany. Natural Gas for Europe has additional info on the Cornell study http://naturalgasforeurope.com/?p=8129

    and more information on the developing shale gas plays in Europe (www.naturalgasforeurope.com)

  • Report this Comment On May 02, 2011, at 10:25 AM, JSSS wrote:

    I could write forever on this topic. Cornell does flunk. WHY? It's community fears its loss of precious water and its clean forests. Understandable. Hydrofracking will NOT lose its black eye. Its nasty in each and every way. MILLIONS of gallons of NY watershed water contaminated not only with fracking fluid (that is minor), but with with down hole radium and hydrocarbons that makes the fracking fluid as minor as toothpaste floride. NO WAY can NY or PE clean the effluent that emerges from down hole contaminents. Impossible. Sorry oily-gassy folks. As much as I am an Oily -Gassy advocate myself, hydrofracking is NEVER going to be good! Period.

    GasFracking has a promise of a better remedy. WHY? GFS Canada uses a 1/10th of the water, and no effluent containment! It is possibly the best news Oily -Gasy Folks have. I vote to explore THIS method for fracking, and none other. That doesn't mean I side with it. But I'd rather see it than Hydrofracking. The test is yet to be rigorously performed. GasFrac has promise.

    More Cornell article faults? Green energy is truly NOT a policy. Do we want our 50 states to resemble Iowa? Biofuel is inefficient and destructive on the surface. It will take 3/4ths of US converted to barren fields of biofuel to make this work. No Less. If NYorkers want beauty, going green is a destructive remedy in each and every way. Agricultural land designed for growing a "different kind of fossil fuel" is NUTZ.

    Cornell's best bet is your Nanotechnology Physics Wiz that has a policy for Solar. Solar is our only hope and I would back my money on a combination of Solar supported by clean, efficient downhole Natural Gas until the batteries are made to last and store solar.

    I love America but with 9 billion on the planet, we HAVE to come up with a realistic way to gain energy. America's Shale beds have been discovered. Until our Wizards make solar real, we have to choose between biofuel or fossil fuel, and of those ONLY NG is efficient if procured with care for our health and gentleness on the environment..

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