Debunking Cornell’s Claim to Fossil Fuel Sustainability

Here is a statistic that is thrown around a lot: Cornell has reduced its green house gas emissions by 33% since 2008 despite a significant growth in campus size. But do these numbers capture the full story of Cornell’s carbon footprint? To understand this we first must look at where Cornell gets its energy.

The Power Plant

Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant

On the south side of campus near Cornell’s Schoellkopf field sits the combined heat and power plant. Originally, this plant burned coal to supply the campus with electricity. In the late 2000s, new hydraulic fracturing technology (fracking) unlocked huge new sources of cheap natural gas and in 2009 Cornell decided to replace coal with fracked gas as the primary energy source for the plant. Today, the plant works by burning natural gas to power two 15 MW turbines. The waste heat produced by the combustion is then collected as steam and used to heat the campus.

Upstream Methane Leakage

While the new gas plant is more efficient in its use of waste heat, it actually emits far more green house gases each year than it did when it was using coal. The reason is that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is over 80 times more effective as a green house gas than CO2. A large percentage of this methane is leaked to the atmosphere during its extraction and transportation to Cornell. In fact, upstream methane leakage accounts for over 70% of Cornell’s green house gas emissions according to the recent Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035 report. When accounting for upstream methane leakage, Cornell’s emissions have almost doubled since 2008 and they continue to rise each year!

Cornell’s yearly emissions including upstream methane leakage


So Where Does 33 Percent Come From?

That number, 33% reductions, is based only on Cornell’s on campus emissions. In particular, the statistic ignores the largest contributor to Cornell’s carbon footprint, upstream methane leakage. When computing this number Cornell also counts the energy they sell to New York’s grid and their forest sequestration initiatives as “negative” emissions. Unfortunately this metric does not account for the true cost of using fracked natural gas.

Cornell’s yearly emissions when upstream methane leakage is ignored

The Real Cost of Methane

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping pressurized water into the ground causing the rock to fracture and release methane, much of which escapes into the air. The process is both environmentally disastrous and fundamentally unsafe. Particularly in Pennsylvania where most of New York’s gas comes from, fracking has polluted drinking water, dumped toxins into neighborhoods, and displaced people from their homes. Frequent accidents during extraction and transportation of this highly flammable and toxic gas puts entire communities at risk. Currently fracking is banned in New York for these very reasons. Nonetheless, Cornell continues to rely on this dangerous energy source at the expense of already vulnerable communities.

Moving Forward

While Cornell has good intentions with its Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, it needs to be more transparent about the real cost of its reliance on methane. We must ask Cornell to use metrics that accurately reflect both the environmental and social cost of fracking. When Cornell begins new projects (such as the North Campus Housing Expansion Project) it should consider upstream methane leakage as a primary source of green house gas emissions when it advertises these projects to students. If we are to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, we need to accept where we have and haven’t made progress. Dropping coal for methane is not progress.

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