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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.