Fracking Symposium Elicits Variety of Responses

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This article outlines responses to Friday’s hydrofracturing symposium, from organizers of the event, students, a Board member, an alum, and an administrator. The article covering the actual event can be found here.

Carr Everbach, the moderator and Chair of the Engineering Department, talked about the purpose of the event via email: “The purpose of the symposium was to explicate the complex issues surrounding hydrofracturing, and to guide the Board of Managers in their deliberations over sustainability on campus.”

After the event, audience members’ reactions seemed largely split between students and other audience members, which included many from the Board of Managers, faculty, and administration.

Susan Levine, the Chair of the Board of Managers’ Social Responsibility Committee and one of the organizers of the event saw the event as a success. Levine said, “I think no matter what your point of view was that day, when you came to the symposium and listened closely to the panelists, you came away with a spectrum of viewpoints, which was our objective. I walked away thinking that everybody there represented their thoughts and their viewpoints with great intelligence and I couldn’t have been happier.”

Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) member Nathan Graf ‘16 had a different opinion. He said, “I think debates and conversation are nice. I would rather this have happened than nothing happened but I would much much rather actual action be taken than more conversation. […] So if the follow-up to this [event] is, ‘We’ve found out these tragic things are important and we’re going to stop relying on fracked gas to heat our buildings,’ that would be really awesome and I think it would be really worth it if that were the outcome. I don’t see that coming in the immediate future.”

Maurice Eldridge ‘61, Swarthmore’s Vice President for College and Community Relations, said, “The takeaway for me was that the complexity of these issues has to be taken into account. We’ve got to get away from our dependence on fossil fuels. For me, what didn’t get mentioned here is consumer behavior. If we use less, we would hit the bottom line for these companies and that would make a difference.” Interim President Constance Hungerford echoed Eldridge’s emphasis on complexity.

Likewise, Gil Kemp ‘72, Chair of the Board of Managers said, “I was impressed by the complexity of the issue and how Carr Everbach, the moderator, was able to guide the speakers and audience in a collegial, constructive fashion exploring those complexities.  The main takeaway for me is the importance of reducing consumption.”

Earthlust member Olivia Ortiz ‘16 and Lekey Leidecker ‘16 both felt that the symposium was not enough. Ortiz said, “I think this is a debate still so in that respect I think this was superfluous. It seems more like a show. This is one of many, many conversations that happen at the college about very important things but there’s no active takeaways and that’s frustrating.”

Leidecker said, “It seems, based on the format more than the discussion, that there is still very little focus on people and communities that are being affected by fracking and that to me is a crucial part of this discussion. I appreciated what happened, but I am still wishing for more.”

David Ko ’72 said, “I’m still learning.  I feel that it would be great to have an even longer conversation about this where one can really dig into all the different aspects of the issues involved.  I hear the headline “fracking” all the time but this was the first time I had really been able to sit and hear multiple sides of the issue: the company side, the environmental side, and someone in the middle who works with both the companies and the environmental networks.  The broader question is if there is a way for us as a society to have these types of conversations.  In the current polarized environment, there are few opportunities for us to have these types of conversations.  In my mind, what we did today was quintessential to what a liberal arts education is all about—to be able to hear all sides of a major issue so that we can understand what the issues are, ask other questions to learn more, and hopefully over time be able to come up with our own perspectives on what actions should be taken.”

NK ’16, another student attendee, was concerned by the focus on market-based solutions to solve environmental issues. She said, “The historical implications of using those methodologies to supply energy and regulate those who create the energy [tell us that] this is not going to help the people who need support the most, particularly the front-line communities that are most impacted. They have electricity but no housing and high rates of cancer. I don’t think market-based solutions are an interesting or compelling argument. It’s old and it’s not working.”

NK also proposed the direction she feels future discussions should be moving in. “I think that having Board members here is important but I want them to be listening to front-line communities, not people with PhDs,” she said. “If anything should happen next, we should have a panel of people who have been living in this situation for decades, not people who are experts in the processes or resisting the processes, it should be the people who are experiencing the effects of those processes.”

When asked whether Swarthmore was likely to take a stance on hydrofracturing, Levine responded, “It’s a good question, we talked about it before. The school pays for students to go to the climate march, so the school can do certain things to facilitate us moving forward and getting involved in issues. But who is the school? The school is a collection of people with different views. We are an educational institution that has a certain tax status. So I’m not sure that we can take stands like that.”

She noted, however, that this does not preclude the school from taking actions to minimize energy consumption. “I personally think the idea of imposing a carbon tax, which was Nels’ recommendation, was a great idea. Departments who use less [energy] shouldn’t be subsidizing departments who use more and other schools in the country are doing this. I’d like to see those kinds of actions taken; I’m certainly going to put that on our agenda at the meeting but I don’t see any kind of position statement coming from the school.”

Part of those efforts are already being taken: the Board announced on Saturday that it would be devoting $12 million to ensuring the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology (BEP) building will meet LEED Platinum+ certification which ensures the building will not use any natural gas. “I feel like we’re essentially divesting from natural gas in taking the building from LEED silver to LEED Platinum plus. […] Making a building completely energy neutral—that’s a very vocal stand. It was money that was not budgeted, and $12 million is a lot of money. You couldn’t get a better affirmation of the school’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2035.” said Levine.

1 Comment

  1. “… consumer behavior. If we use less …” Unfortunately, that’s not “where it’s at”. End consumers use but a fraction of total energy and certainly would not make much of a dent in the fracking company’s bottom line as such. Even if, say, consumers accounted for 40% of total energy consumption, then only, say, a third of that could be substitutable fracking components. That’s, say, 15% max. If every consumer reduced their consumption by, say, 20%, then overall maybe 3% would end up at the fracking companies’ doorstep. And that was if EVERYONE participated. Neither will they nor will they make even 20% cuts. However, the symposium seems to miss the crucial point: these companies only (!) exist because of current cheap money. Like most newly built houses prior to 2007 existed only because of cheap credit back then. A rise in interest rates, drying up credit or falling oil and gas demand resp. prices would immediately (!) wipe out these overleveraged companies. And as we speak, that has just begun to happen. The much bigger problem: remember the “Superfund” in the 1980s when contaminated soil was to be cleared and no one there to pay for it? The very (!) same will happen now with all these areas that have been “plowed but never sown” in the fracking states!

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