Natural resources, the university and “we”

Recently I received my Spring 2013 copy of the Syracuse University Magazine, one of the perks of being an alum. (link) Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s front piece message profusely thanked donors for supporting a “stunning and poetic” project. She declared the now closed seven-year Campaign for Syracuse University an “Unprecedented success.” (link)

Orange splashed across the slick, colorful pages, but green was being counted in the ivy halls: $1,044,352,779 American dollars—that’s billion with a “B.” In a feature article titled, “Passion Meets Transformation” Chancellor Cantor was praised for passionately guiding SU to “new heights,” sparking a “University-wide shift toward a philanthropic culture.” (link)

(My little experience with SU philanthropy occurred in the spring of 1956, my first semester at Syracuse after being discharged from the U. S. Army. I borrowed $400 from an on-campus Methodist student loan fund to replace my beloved ’49 Plymouth totally destroyed by a speeding, drunken student one night while parked in front of our married student apartment building on Colvin St.)

The $1 billion infusion is said to “transform” Syracuse U: 100 new faculty endowments; a dozen major building and renovation projects on campus; several expansions off-campus and 100-percent increase in student applications since 2005 (their “dream school”). A caption under recent graduate (Class of 2011) Brenna Carlin’s beaming face read, “I believe in giving back….” And give, many did. It’s so cool to “give back,” whatever that means.

Alumni gave 48 percent, corporations 25 percent and foundations 14 percent. Parents kicked in 11 percent and faculty 2 percent. More than one-third of the money allocates to “programs-research,” 20 percent each to faculty and student “support,” 17 percent to “capital projects” and most of the remainder to “discretionary.”

More power to them. But what also caught my attention was “Opening Remarks” by SU Magazine Editor Jay Cox titled, “Water Powers a Divisive Debate” based on an article by SU alum and journalist Tom Wilber published in this issue.

(My interest was aroused from years of life and learning at Syracuse. I earned B. S. and M. S. degrees from the SUNY College of Forestry and Syracuse University in 1959 and 1960; and for many years worked in land development and natural resources management.)

Half of Mr. Coxes remarks raised speculative fears about “when the well runs dry” and his kitchen faucet that “gurgled and sputtered” (but “replenished itself”) that “served as a warning for us to mind our ways.” He then carelessly transitioned to “fracking, for shale gas, which has the potential to contaminate ground-water and surface water”—ignoring the fact that virtually all human activities have that “potential.” (link)

In reality, we have the actual ability to prevent, correct or mitigate against pollution in the modern world—and in America we do it.

This illustrates a frequent journalism ploy: crafting a negative, fearful, sometimes heart-wrenching story that leads casual and uninformed readers to suppose bad things likely will happen from proposed development of land or other natural resources. In my opinion, this is journalistic malpractice—intended to raise fears, usually with little or no evidence that they exist or are likely to happen. It falls in line with organized, radical environmental deceptions used to prevent or stall development and use of vital earth extracted energy resources.

I am, however, willing to allow that Mr. Cox didn’t realize that he gave that impression. Frequently journalists think it’s clever to use “creative” writing in reports and commentary. I admire good writing, but unsupported assumptions should not be part of serious issues that might mislead readers. I suspect that modern journalism schools so instill environmental propaganda in students, they don’t know that other reasoned views exist.

Cox writes: “(Fracking to extract shale gas is) a complex issue that has provoked a highly divisive political debate….” The “issue” has not alienated us, certain people have—those who will gain from isolating us from the truth: environmental activists, self-serving politicians, greedy landowners and opportunistic lawyers.

Note that I have not included the developers in this group. They mind their own business, risking their time and resources; doing what has to be done to provide the vital energy we all need. Of course they will lobby quietly for their interests; and they profit, but only if they are technically (and politically) correct. Obviously, they can’t afford to alienate the public or its politicians. Still, they are unfairly portrayed as uncaring villains.

Mr. Cox concludes his remarks by setting up a hypothetical false choice unrelated to reality: “Do we safeguard one precious natural resource (water)…or risk it for economic rewards that come from another (shale gas)…?” he asks. Does he understand that no human activity is risk-free, and that risk is evaluated by degree? We always accept some risk when we know we will greatly gain.

Of course “we” will not make water unusable resulting from gas extraction. Oil and gas are also precious and essential to our well-being. Strong federal and state laws enforced by multiple agencies certainly help reduce risks to our water resources. The American public will not tolerate high levels of water pollution. And competent, responsible developers that employ scientists, engineers and highly skilled technicians, working with state regulatory agencies will see that risk is minimized. So, where are “we” on the ground, and under it, in New York State?

Journalist Tom Wilber’s article, “In the Fracking Zone” features a couple with land leased to a shale gas company, a team of SU geologists and an SU graduated lawyer—all seeking notoriety and financial rewards from the work now being done in Pennsylvania just over New York State’s Southern Tier border counties. (link)

Landowners in New York State miss the financial boat sailing down the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. The prevailing NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude promoted by environmental preservationists intimidated New York politicians to put a moratorium on shale gas drilling in 2008. Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians profit in many ways from the natural gas pumped from ancient geological strata a mile and one half under them. But this story is about emotion not technical truths or any reasoned objectivity.

True to form, Wilber (SU Class of 1989) starts his fracking story with a human interest/environmental tale: The Jones “live on a wooded hillside above the Susquehanna River Valley…hiking paths weave through stands of hardwoods…Springs and rivulets…feed ponds before draining into Deerlick Creek.” Get the picture?

Oh, and here the three Jones boys “built forts and caught frogs in their youth.” (Subliminal message: All this will disappear if frackers violate the landscape.) Naturally, Mr. Wilber tells us that the Joneses “are keen to see (this environment) preserved.” But in the article we learn they, too, have vested financial interests and the ability to influence public opinion.

We all have visions of everything unchanged from the way we knew it. But change in the natural, real world goes on with or without our hopes—and man-created changes almost always improve our lives. Ultimately, we all hope to profit from our visions, whatever they may be.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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