After months of discussion over the use of natural gas in the upcoming North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) project, Cornell University’s commitment to going green has been called into question. With goals to eliminate the use of greenhouse gases and other carbon-based fuels from campus by 2035, students want to know if the change is possible. During a panel discussion last week at the annual Collegetown Town Hall, part of which centered on Cornell’s 2035 environmental plan, students and members of the public gathered to hear about the plan’s potential future.
Speakers included: Pete Meyers, head of the Tompkins County Workers Center; Seph Murtagh, Common Council member and the head of the City of Ithaca’s Planning & Economic Development Committee (PEDC); and professor Bruce Monger of Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
Monger began the discussion by addressing the skepticism of students and members of the public about Cornell being able to reach their climate goals. He said that while the campus is going to be eliminating their use of coal, there is also a greater chance for Cornell to increase the use of their methane emissions and to have higher greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Murtagh began by speaking about an issue that affects most residents of not just Ithaca but also Tompkins County: affordable housing. Since the average rental price of an apartment is about $980, according to Murtagh, this could be something of a challenge to ensure that there is enough housing being built for people of all incomes.
Murtagh also touched on how Ithaca’s zoning laws are quite conservative, so much so that, in his words, if Fall Creek burned down, the zoning laws wouldn’t allow it to be rebuilt the way it was originally. Finally, Meyers touched on wage theft around Tompkins County, as well as Cornell’s relationship with local unions after the Maplewood project controversy came about. He has seen some cases of wage theft in Tompkins County, although he is hoping none arise from the NCRE project.
During the question and answer portion of the panel, a query was raised about whether Cornell’s goal of being carbon-free is realistic and whether they should divest from fossil fuel-based companies. Monger discussed the idea that for every percent they reduce admissions, they should also divest a percent of their portfolio from companies that are not as eco-friendly. He also said that Cornell achieving their 2035 goal hinges on a new project similar to their Lake Source Cooling.
The new project, called Earth Source Heating, is going to take water from Cayuga Lake, bring it about four kilometers down into the earth, and then bring it back up to heat the campus. Over the next few years, test drills will be sent into the earth to see if this can be done safely. Should this project succeed, the 2035 goals may remain on track. If not, then delays could push that goal back several more years.
After this came a question regarding some of the questions the PEDC had about the NCRE project’s initial proposal as well as to how PEDC and the public reacted. Murtagh said that even though they were not required to come before the PEDC, he wanted all of Common Council to have a chance to go over the project. He stated that he was not happy about the decision for the project to not undergo a full environmental impact study. There was support for the project but the energy issue was the factor that dominated the most conversation surrounding the project.
Monger did mention that the NCRE project, which has continued to anger not just local environmental activists but members of the public who are from areas of Pennsylvania that were ravaged by fracking, became controversial due to a series of miscommunications. According to Monger, the request for proposals was never specific regarding the type of energy required for the project. Cornell’s Campus Sustainability Office was not in sync with the other offices who sent the request for proposals.
One question for Meyer asked him to describe how he perceives Cornell as an employer. He said that like most businesses, there are some complaints, but there are more coming from one downtown business, which he didn’t want to mention by name, than from Cornell.
Additional questions asked dealt with how Ithaca has been avoiding being gentrified. Murtagh said the challenge with this is how Cornell and Ithaca coexist. Since Cornell is such a large part of Ithaca, it can be hard for one to change without something happening to the other.
Murtagh, though, has found that the renter community has been a missing voice from politics. Since students and other young people are so focused on their own careers, it can be a challenge to find the time to go to public meetings.
The final question of the discussion was directed to Pete Meyers and concerned how the labor unions will be able to work with Cornell on the newest project. Meyers said that the NCRE is going to be beneficial for the building trade unions and Cornell. Despite many not agreeing with the energy issue of the NCRE, this project could help to strengthen the relationship between the local building trade unions and Cornell.