Opinion: No Fracking Way
“Fracked gas, in the past. Fracked gas, in the past.”
Such was the chant echoing around Ohio State’s Main Oval on October 15, as we gathered with dozens of other students to protest the building of a new power plant, designed to supply the University’s heating and energy for decades to come. And yet, the offices of Dr. Kristina Johnson, newly arrived President of Ohio State, remained closed and shuttered – with no response from within.
The student anger on display in front of President Johnson’s office emerged in response to months of obfuscation by the Ohio State administration, beginning right from the birth of the project. The power plant, fully titled the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Plant, emerged from a $1.1 billion energy deal signed between the University and Ohio State Energy Partners (OSEP) – made up of ENGIE, a French Energy Company, and Axium Infrastructure, a Canadian investment firm – in 2017. This deal, explained in depth at the time by the Dispatch, committed Ohio State to a partnership with OSEP for the foreseeable future, and included provisions regarding energy supply and research opportunities that led to the proposal of the CHP. The subsequent construction of the plant was presented under the leadership of Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute, which has taken the lead in defending the plant in public.
However, while this deal was made public, knowledge of its implications for Ohio State’s Columbus campus were repeatedly concealed from the students, faculty, and employees that constitute said campus. From senior members of the Undergraduate Student Government, to the associated faculty of the Sustainability Institute itself, genuine information about the plant was withheld at every turn.
The most glaring example, and the event that sparked student protests on campus, came on October 7, at a town hall ostensibly designed to inform students about the plant’s implications. Ohio State University administrators ignored and manipulated student questions to confirm their own narrative, pitching the plant as an environmental upgrade, while skirting around the fact that financial concerns were the university’s main motivation for choosing fracked gas over renewables.
So what exactly is the CHP, and how did Ohio State get this project so wrong when it comes to sustainability? The planned facility generates both heat and power, meaning that natural gas is burned to generate electricity with the leftover heat used to make steam, primarily for heating campus buildings. The CHP would allow Ohio State to generate its own electricity instead of buying from the grid, currently supplied mostly by coal. But the CHP will not reduce Ohio State’s environmental impact by anywhere near the amount claimed for a number of reasons.
First, Ohio State’s statistics for emissions reductions from the CHP have a big asterisk; they don’t include emissions at the point of extraction. The fracked natural gas that would power the CHP comes with methane leaks at fracking wells, a massive source of greenhouse gases. In February 2018, an explosion at a fracking well in Belmont County, Ohio released more methane into the atmosphere in twenty days than all but three European nations release annually according to the Washington Post. And a recent study by scientists at the University of California at Irvine shows that when such leaks are taken into account, the overall global warming impact of natural gas is barely, if at all, better than coal.
Second, fracking causes immense environmental damage in both the communities where natural gas is extracted and those through which it is transported. Fracking poisons rivers and groundwater, it creates unhealthy air pollution, it causes earthquakes, and it requires the dumping of massive amounts of radioactive wastewater. It is downright contradictory for a land-grant institution like Ohio State that portrays itself as a leader in science and education for everyday Ohioans to outsource that damage to the distant communities where pipelines and wells are built.
Finally, the CHP locks Ohio State into decades of fossil fuel use at a time when the grid is rapidly transitioning towards renewable alternatives. The City of Columbus plans to transition to 100% clean energy by 2022. What’s more, the CHP requires that all new buildings constructed on West Campus be built to use inefficient steam for heating, preventing us from ever switching to renewable electricity.
Does Ohio State’s plan for sustainability really include creating an island of carbon-emitting, fracked-gas-burning power in a sea of solar and wind? Is that really the best that our university, supposedly a visionary leader in environmental research and problem-solving, can do? With construction of the CHP soon getting underway, it seems that President Johnson, university administration, and the “Sustainability” Institute think so.
— Anthony Perrins & Larkin Cleland