MEADVILLE – At Allegheny College, students eat locally grown food from biodegradable containers using compostable forks.
Just 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, the private, liberal-arts college has won national awards for green initiatives, gets all its electricity from wind generation and has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.
Now, the school touted in the Princeton Review’s guide to green colleges as a leader of environmental friendliness, is talking about leasing land for fracking, the horizontal drilling technique used to get gas from shale.
Even more surprising is that the most likely place is in the Bousson Environmental Research Reserve, 283 acres of university-owned land. It is part of the Bousson Forest, which sits atop the Utica Shale.
There is no offer on the table yet, but gas leasing companies expressed interest late last year, and the school is trying to head off controversy. It may become a model for handling the issue on campuses across the state.
Allegheny College has tried to avoid some of the tension around the subject on campus by creating a group of faculty members, students and alumni to help the school navigate a discussion of drilling.
But many students PublicSource talked with aren’t buying the arguments for fracking.
Annie Krol, 23, said she chose to attend Allegheny because of its green reputation.
“It shocked me that we would consider subsidizing fossil fuels,” Krol said. “It’s not in line with our image.”
The situation unfolding at Allegheny is in stark contrast to the way California University of Pennsylvania, a state-owned school, handled leasing campus land in 2011. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PublicSource collaborated on a story about the lease, students said they knew nothing about it.
Larry Lee, vice president of finance and administration at Allegheny, said officials there want a better sense of what the concerns are in the community and on campus.
“Let’s have a conversation,” Lee said. “We don’t know whether we are interested or not, but we should go through the process of self-awareness and education.”
But some on the campus fear that the discussions will have no impact on the ultimate decision makers – the school’s board of trustees.
“If the trustees have decided that they want to frack, then we’re going to frack,” said Krol, who has since graduated.
The tension surrounding this issue on the Allegheny campus was evident at an April forum held at the school’s historic chapel, where dark oak pews, vaulted ceilings and stained glass seemed an odd setting for such a discussion.
Members of the campus community fired questions and comments at the Bousson Advisory Group, picked to aid in decision-making.
“For this institution to teach me sustainability and … then for them to turn their back on me, to say we are going to frack because of the money, undermines the values we stand for,” said Ahasanur Rahman, 22, who graduated in May with a degree in environmental science.
Many of the forums have centered on industry issues, said Kiley Fisher, 22, with experts from the drilling industry discussing the process of leasing land and seismic testing. That leads her to believe the school will ultimately allow drilling.
An environmental group that Fisher heads, Students for Environmental Action, gathered more than 900 signatures from students, faculty, staff and alumni against fracking.
Krol, who graduated in May, said that if the campus decides to frack, it would be neglecting its civic duty to protect Meadville.
“(When) we graduate, who is going to take care of the town of Meadville?” Krol asked the group.
A model for green care?
Not everyone on campus is opposed to fracking or the school’s decision-making process.
One student at the forum, Luis Guillen, 19, said he thought the school and Meadville could benefit from drilling.
“It would bring a huge economic boost and the town would be revived after being in a depression for so long,” Guillen said after the meeting.
More than 27 percent of Meadville residents live below the poverty line, compared with 12.6 percent in Pennsylvania, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data.
Raymond Jozwiak, 19, a student member of the Bousson Advisory Group, praised the college for its transparency. In addition to the forums that allow for airing concerns, the group’s website allows comments about drilling.
“We are merely trying to help facilitate the discussion; it is purely a democratic thing,” Jozwiak said.
John Ubinger, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the moderator of the April forum, said the school is doing the right thing by holding campus discussions.
“I think folks should acknowledge and recognize that what they’re doing is trying to inform their board of trustees … (about) what the sentiment on the campus is,” Ubinger said.
Could Allegheny College do good things with revenue from shale drilling?
Steven Onyeiwu, an associate professor of economics at Allegheny, posed that question during the campus meeting.
“So that in the future people will begin to point to us and say, ‘See what Allegheny did with their oil and gas money,’” he said.
Lee, the vice president, said the school could use revenue from drilling for geothermal heating, retrofitting buildings and other improvements to help the school reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.
“Is it not possible to do good things with ‘soiled money?’” Onyeiwu said.
Allegheny is a small school, with just 2,100 students. Tuition is about $155,000 for four years.
The college’s endowment is $160 million, Lee said, and many schools they compete with have larger endowments.
Some administrators think that revenue from drilling could be invested in the endowment, Lee said.
Onyeiwu said he hasn’t made up his mind on whether drilling would be a good idea for Allegheny, but he would like to see students have broader discussions about what the school could do to make the process safer and in line with its ideals.
“Unfortunately, I think, people’s mindsets are based on, no,” he said.
Faculty and administrators at Allegheny College said they looked at how Bethany College, a private liberal-arts school in West Virginia, handled the issue on campus.
Bethany signed a lease with Chesapeake Energy in 2011 to drill beneath about 1,300 acres of school-owned land. College administrators said at the time that they insisted from the start that no well pads would be allowed on the school’s 400-acre campus.
If Allegheny decides to drill, the terms of its lease could play an important role in protecting the environment, Ubinger said.
Safeguards could be put in a lease that would protect the Bousson property, said Lee. The general consensus from the faculty and administration is that there would be no drill pad located on the surface of the Bousson property, he said.
“If Allegheny develops a very environmentally protective lease, it can become the template,” Ubinger said.
Allegheny is in Crawford County, where there’s been very little drilling so far. That leads Ubinger to believe that people there, as well as the campus community, have time to carefully consider their options.
Depending on the interest of gas companies, a final decision by the Allegheny trustees about drilling might take the school several years, Lee said.
“I hope there’s a sense of trust, that people were heard (and) opinions were respected,” he said.
Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.