This week we attended a debate between a supporter of natural gas, Terry Engelder, and well-known natural gas opponent, Tony Ingraffea, who seems to oppose natural gas full-time while on the Cornell faculty. The debate was in Dundee, New York where the town is considering a moratorium on natural gas development.
Joe and I drove to the event from Binghamton, New York and counted at least three natural gas wells on Seneca Lake as we passed through. We knew the debate would be a heated topic and we were right. There were many supporters on both sides of the issue and the total attendance was somewhere between 200-300 people.
It was a spirited but respectful discussion by all involved, but one thing stood out. That thing was some inconsistencies in what Tony Ingraffea had to offer.
The setup of the debate was typical, with opening arguments, questions (this time from the audience), and closing remarks. Dr. Engelder did a phenomenal job discussing natural gas and debating Dr. Ingraffea. Each speaker had 30 minutes to state their opening arguments.
Engelder’s opening remarks provided essential background covering how the industry has evolved. He also noted he had grown up in the Finger Lakes region himself. He informed the audience that while he completely supports natural gas, for very important reasons, he would never want to see anything negative happen to his hometown as a result of it, explaining that everything has risks and it’s a matter of evaluating and managing them. Natural gas development risks, Engelder stated, were extremely minimal compared to the great benefits to be had. (See video below at 1:24)
He noted he may have been one of the first people to realize the potential of the shale gas resource in the area because of what he learned early on from the perspective of a geologist. He understood, in 2007, it was going to be a game changer and would be integral to renewable energy implementation. There is risk associated with everything but, in order to get to renewable energy, we have to use natural gas as a bridge fuel, according to Engelder.
“It’s all about natural gas, there is no other route.”
Engelder also discussed his philosophy with respect to natural gas development. Observing the fact farmers own most of the land in the area and are in desperate need of economic help, he suggested there is a large moral issue unfolding with the natural gas debate. Holding out on farmers who are losing their land, homes and livelihood is extremely immoral, he said, leading him to conclude the risks are reasonable and natural gas development must proceed, especially given the the ability to manage those risks.
He used the impact of automobiles on human life as an illustration. He talked about the risks associated with driving and the number of accidents in recent years, noting the latter had decreased because the automobile industry has made safer cars. No industry is static, he explained, and the natural gas industry has done the same thing as the car industry. Risks are still present, but steadily decreasing as the industry evolves and are very manageable compared to other activities.
Engelder then moved on to talking about the number of natural gas wells in the area. He told the audience they are likely to hear there will be hundreds of well pads in the area, and some folks opposed to natural gas would like others to think there are no well pads in the finger lakes region. This is a myth, an untruth. There are about 100 wells in the Finger lakes and, as we mentioned above and observed ourselves. These wells are even found next to several wineries who claim they oppose natural gas development (14:40).
The Penn State professor also talked about other things occurring in the area that are potentially much more harmful to the lakes than natural gas development could ever be. He mentioned, as one example, salt spread on the roads each winter nearly every day; salt that runs off the roads, down the banks and into the lakes without being noticed by anyone.
Engelder also addressed truck traffic, which seems to be a big argument from our friends on the other side of the natural gas debate. He said, yes, there will be increased truck traffic but it is not permanent, but, rather, a temporary issue as individual well pads are developed and then finished.
He also discussed renewable energy, explaining that wineries, for example, would not be able to produce what they needed in the way of electricity from solar alone because the sun doesn’t shine 24/7/365. We can generate more electricity for the wineries, with natural gas thereby helping tourism expand (not to mention the economic contributions of natural gas in allowing farmers to pay the taxes on their land and hold onto it).
You can watch all of Terry Engelder’s presentation below.
Post debate there was a question and answer session where audience participants wrote down questions on index cards and the moderator read them to Engelder and Ingraffea. While this method was effective in getting rid of repeat questions it was sometimes difficult to hear the question being asked. This occurred with our question, as it involved some prelude.
Our full question (drafted by Joe) was as follows:
Mr. Ingraffea, I attended a recent lecture you gave to a classroom of students at Cornell. The presentation was about how developing shale gas was not a route we should be taking right now and that, instead, we should be investing in other energy. After your presentation you posed a question to your class asking them what other kinds of energy could be used to offset the need to develop natural gas. Many answered by saying fossil fuels should be taken offline and renewable energy should be ramped up to cover our energy needs. You and I both know cheap abundant energy is a necessity, especially with our energy needs increasing every year. You then unveiled your idea to slowly bring fossil fuel burning offline and to supply that energy using nuclear energy. As you know nuclear energy needs a fuel – uranium. My question to you is that with the uranium lode recently found in Virginia and that state’s intent to develop this resource, do you support this development of the fuel needed for nuclear power?
Ingraffea inexplicably denied ever saying ramping up nuclear is a way to offset the energy being produced from fossil fuels. He then went on to bash Energy in Depth and accuse us of taking things out of context. Here, however, is what Dr. Ingraffea said during his presentation at Cornell, when he asked his class if they’d like to see his predictions on addressing climate change:
…20% decrease in energy needs in the United States, small scale hydro, importing hydro from Canada, increase biomass, more nuclear (don’t shoot me), no coal, drastic decrease in fossil fuels… (44:45)
Here is the video of him offering these predictions, while asking his class not to laugh:
So we know Tony Ingraffea did say this. Yet, when, when he “answers” our question, he explicitly denies ever saying it. See video below:
Ingraffea did offer nuclear energy as part his solution for addressing climate change. That much is clear. Is he a fan of nuclear? Obviously, not, but that’s the point isn’t it? His predictions, the ones he relies upon to suggest we can drastically reduce fossil fuel use in the next several years, rely upon a composite of alternatives that only produce what he wants us to believe is possible, if he includes things he says he also opposes. His package, in other words, only works for the moment, until he is confronted with the opposition to nuclear, wind or whatever, at which point he’s against that, too. It reminds us of the opposition by RFK, Jr. to wind power off Cape Cod and his changed position on natural gas. Energy opponents, particularly NIMBY types, are always for something as an alternative until they’re against it.
Following the debate we had a chance to speak to Dr. Engelder about how he thought it went. He stated it was a good opportunity for the two sides to come together and discuss options for our growing energy needs.
Engelder’s final comments can be viewed below.
The debate stayed very composed the whole way through. The sponsors didn’t allow signs or much distraction from the debate and the audience abided by the rules. The audience also had many of their questions answered and it was clear both speakers are enthusiastic about renewable energy for the long-term, but have quite different ideas about the short-term.