Planning workshop helps Tioga County group plan for gas drilling

March 19, 2010

Students in Visiting Assistant Professor Katia Balassiano’s spring-semester workshop were not only learning firsthand how professional planners work, but were also helping a rural community group prepare for the impact of a controversial type of natural gas drilling.

The class of 13 undergraduate and graduate students worked with Tioga Investigating Natural Gas (TING), a countywide community task force founded last year. The students developed strategies the group can use to mitigate the impact of the unconventional natural gas drilling expected to occur in communities lying atop the Marcellus Shale, a dense rock formation that extends from Southern New York into Appalachia.

“This kind of workshop gives the students a real good flavor of how complex planning really is,” says Balassiano, a former municipal planner in Rhode Island. “I think the Marcellus Shale issue characterizes the planning that the students are going to encounter upon graduation.”

The proposed natural gas drilling has raised concerns because companies plan to use a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas from the underground shale. The process requires pushing water treated with chemicals into wells at high pressure to crack the rock and release the natural gas. The wastewater would then be treated at designated disposal sites.

While Pennsylvania has already allowed companies to drill natural gas wells using the procedure, New York officials are conducting an environmental review before deciding whether to permit companies to proceed with the drilling.

In mid-February, Balassiano and the students boarded a chartered bus and drove down to tour Tioga County and Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where drilling has already begun. The Bradford County planner joined the group and showed the students the gas drilling sites as well as the wind farms that have developed in the area.

“This is really fascinating to me to get this kind of perspective on what is the biggest issue in this area,” says Nathaniel Decker (M.R.P. ’11) originally from Clinton, New York. “To get that experience now and to be able to talk about it with my classmates — that’s what I came to graduate school for.”

The workshop was divided into four teams that focused on issues which reflect TING’s own subcommittees: water quality; roads, workforce and safety; environment; and process and communications. The students in the workshop came from a variety of disciplines at Cornell, ranging from natural resources to planning and public administration.

To help pay for travel expenses and publication of a final report, the workshop received a $2,000 grant from the Faculty Fellows-In-Service Program, a Cornell initiative that supports faculty and undergraduates involved in community service activities. At the end of the semester, the students in the workshop produced 30 copies of a report discussing their recommendations and presented their findings to TING stakeholders.

By Sherrie Negrea

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