By Ellen Cantarow, who reported on Israel and the West Bank from 1979 to 2009 for the Village Voice, Mother Jones, Inquiry, and Grand Street, among other publications. For the past five years she has been writing about the environmental ravages of the oil and gas industries. Thanks to DC Bureau reporter Peter Mantius for his assistance. Originally published at TomDispatch
Let’s amend the famous line from Joni Mitchell’s “Yellow Taxi” to fit this moment in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, Big Energy seems determined to turn paradise, if not into a parking lot, then into a massive storage area for fracked natural gas. But there’s one way in which that song doesn’t quite match reality. Mitchell famously wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As part of a growing global struggle between Big Energy and a movement focused on creating a fossil-fuel-free future, however, the residents of the Finger Lakes seem to know just what they’ve got and they’re determined not to let it go. As a result, a local struggle against a corporation determined to bring in those fracked fuels catches a changing mood not just in the United States but across the world when it comes to protecting the planet, one place at a time, if necessary.
It’s difficult to imagine a more picturesque landscape, a more tranquil locale, a more bucolic garden spot than the Finger Lakes region. Each year, it draws tens of thousands of tourists to gaze at the waterfalls in Watkins Glen, to kayak and canoe in its deep waters, to dine in its farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy the homespun hospitality of its bed and breakfasts. Lush vineyards rustle on tree-studded hillsides. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it top honors last year, calling it “one of the most vibrant and promising wine regions of the world.” There are fruit and vegetable farms and sugar maples, too. In 2013, the state’s maple syrup production ranked second only to Vermont’s.
The eleven Finger Lakes are among the wonders of the natural world. At 38 milesin length, Seneca Lake is the second longest of them, its 4.2 trillion gallons of water provide drinking water for 100,000 people. Its shallows are home to warm-water fish like smallmouth bass and yellow perch. Its deep waters play host to lake trout and Atlantic salmon and have created a unique microclimate in the surrounding region, neither too cold in winter nor too warm in summer, allowing agriculture to flourish.
Perhaps inspired by the ecological marvel that is their home, many of the Finger Lakes vineyards and vegetable farms rely on sustainable production methods. At the same time, wineries, hundreds of businesses, and individual families have begun converting from the use of fossil fuels to alternative energies. Tompkins County, adjacent to Seneca Lake, has even developed a solar energy program that has inspired similar efforts in counties across the state. A regional wind farm is scheduled to start operating in 2016. Clean and green seems to be the ethos of the region, but all that could change fast — and soon.
The Battle of Seneca Lake
There’s a battle brewing between the burgeoning clean-energy future embraced by this region and the dirty energy sources on which this planet has been running since the Industrial Revolution. Over the last six years, Crestwood Midstream Partners, a Texas-based corporation, has been pushing to build a gas storage and transportation hub for the entire northeastern United States at Seneca Lake. The company’s statements boast about setting up shop “atop the Marcellus Shale play,” a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, hotspot. It plans to connect pipelines that will transmit two kinds of fracked gas — methane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — probably from areas of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. These will be stockpiled in long-abandoned salt caverns, the remnants of a nineteenth-century salt-mining industry that capitalized on the remains of a 300-million-year-old ocean that once was here.
Against the project, a motley coalition of farmers and vintners, doctors and lawyers, clean energy companies and reluctant do-it-yourself activists are focused on protecting this ecological marvel. Their goal: to guide the region toward a fossil-fuel-free future despite the deep pockets and corporate savvy of an out-of-state energy firm.
Crestwood is already storing 1.5 billion cubic feet of methane at the lake and has just won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to add another half-billion cubic feet. In addition, Crestwood is intent on storing millions of barrels of two highly volatile liquefied petroleum gases, propane and butane, in the caverns. While FERC has jurisdiction over the methane part of the plan, New York State’s Department of Conservation governs the LPG part and its decision is pending. Although scientists warned about likely serious incidents of gas seepage or structural collapse in the salt caverns, FERC approved the methane storage part of the plan in May.
Crestwood’s plan would mean the full-scale industrialization of the lake’s shores near Watkins Glen, including a 14-acre open pit for holding brine (water supersaturated with salt) removed from the caverns upon the injection of the gas; a 60-foot flare stack (a gas combustion device); a six-track rail site capable of loading and unloading 24 rail cars every 12 hours, each bearing 30,000 gallons of LPG; and a truck depot where four to five semi-trailers would be unloaded every hour. As many as 32 rail cars at a time would cross a 75-year-old trestle that spans one of the country’s natural wonders, the Watkins Glen gorge, its shale sides forming steep columns down which waterfalls cascade.
The plan is riddled with accidents waiting to happen. Brine seepage, for example, could at some point make the lake water non-potable. (From 1964 to 1984, when propane was stored in two of the caverns, the lake’s salinity shot up.) That’s only the first of many potential problems including tanker truck and train accidents, explosions, the emission of toxic and carcinogenic organic compounds from compressor stations and other parts of the industrial complex, air pollution, and impacts on local bird species and animal life due to deforestation and pollution.
Salt caverns 1,000 feet or more underground have been used for gas storage since the middle of the last century and have a checkered history. A January 2015 analysis of Crestwood’s plan, based on documents by both independent scientists and an industry geologist, found 20 serious or extremely serious incidents in American salt cavern storage facilities between 1972 and 2012. Ten of these involved large fires and explosions; six, loss of life or serious injury; eight, the evacuation of from 30 to 2,000 residents; and 13, extremely serious or catastrophic property loss.
According to the report, if Crestwood’s proposal is approved, worst-case scenarios could include loss of life, loss of the lake as a drinking-water source, and temporary or even permanent evacuation of the local population. “Most other regulated [industries] with a persistent serious to extremely serious facility incident rate of this magnitude would be shut down or else voluntarily discontinued, except in wartime,” writes the report’s editor, Rob Mackenzie, a medical doctor and fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.
The Seneca Lake caverns where Crestwood plans to store LPG are also alarmingly unstable. One was plugged and abandoned a decade ago after an engineer concluded that its roof had collapsed during a minor earthquake in the 1960s. What fell from the top of the cavern was no pebble. The chunk of rock weighed 400,000 tons and was four times the size of the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier. Another cavern lies beneath a rock formation that is subject to intermittent collapse and weakened by faults.
Nonetheless, Crestwood is proceeding with plans to store 600,000 barrels of liquid propane in the first cavern and 1.5 million barrels in the second. Geologist H.C. Clark, who authored a 2013 report on salt-cavern fragility, has charged both FERC and Arlington Storage, a Crestwood subsidiary, with making “an incredible error” in pushing the project forward.
Fighting the Good Fight
Hundreds of local businesses, organizations, and individuals opposed to the project have formed a coalition to block Crestwood’s plan, while 23 municipalities and five of the six townships surrounding Seneca Lake have also come out against the project. In April 2013, 12 demonstrators staged a “stand-in” outside a fenced Crestwood site and were arrested for trespassing. “My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a larger, violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into air and water and the intrusion of fracking infrastructure into our beloved Finger Lakes,” said biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber, a local resistance leader.
“All of us are 65 percent water by weight,” she told demonstrators and reporters. “Seneca Lake is the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. So 100,000 people are walking around [made up of] Seneca Lake. That’s their blood plasma, that’s their cerebral spinal fluid, that’s their exhaled breath on a cold winter day.” With this in mind, Steingraber co-founded We Are Seneca Lake, a loose affiliation of people who have been facilitating citizen blockades at the site. All protestors sign and then, at the protest site, recite a pledge of resistance that concludes:
“I make this pledge to ensure the protection of Seneca Lake, which nourishes the vitality and enjoyment of the communities surrounding it; to prevent the destruction and poisoning of water, air, and food systems on which safety, health, and economic prosperity of our communities — and those of future generations — all depend. My abiding concern for the health and safety of my community compels me to take this action.”
The protests have had themes: an elf and Santa blockade during the 2014 Christmas season; a farm and food blockade in January 2015, which brought “foodies,” farmers, chefs, bakers, vintners, restaurant owners, and cookbook authors to Crestwood’s gates; a people of faith blockade; and another in honor of Pete Seeger.
In May, I attended a renewable energy blockade featuring employees from Renovus, a small, Ithaca-based renewable energy company. That firm’s president and employees drew attention to the dozens of jobs they had available, a dramatic contrast to the paltry eight to 10 that Crestwood says the storage project would create.
To date, according to Sujata Gibson, an attorney working pro bono for We Are Seneca Lake, there have been more than 270 arrests. Many protestors have been sentenced to 15-day terms for trespass, a violation-level offense that is not serious enough to constitute a crime in New York. Will Ouweleen, founding secretary of the Finger Lakes Wine Business Coalition, was the first of several vintners to be arrested. “It wasn’t like I jumped up to be arrested,” he says. “It was a last resort after our concerns went unheard by our elected officials.”
Sixty people have had their charges dismissed in the “interests of justice,” a provision of New York criminal procedure law. Gibson calls those dismissals “a huge victory… They were dismissed by four different judges in four different courts, kind of a universal recognition of what justice really required in this circumstance.” Another 84 dismissal motions have been made and decisions on them are pending.
At the We Are Seneca Lake website, hundreds of statements by demonstrators, ages 19 to 90, including farmers, doctors, ministers, town councilors, a pastry chef, and a midwife, highlight their opposition to fossil fuels and support for a future world of renewable energy. “Muskrat Studio is my haven for creativity,” writes 68-year-old Barbara Peace of Ithaca, owner of the Muskrat, where poetry, fine art, photography, and sculpture are sold “for a reasonable price.” Forty-four-year-old Sara Ferguson writes, “My son Lucian just turned six. He is the future. Fossil fuels are not the future. I’m a cancer survivor, and I don’t want to get sick again. I have a boy to raise.”
A Dirty Past or a Clean Future?
“One of the exciting effects of the protests,” Sujata Gibson told me, “is that they have energized our community to start looking for ways to become sustainable without the use of fossil fuels.” In 2013, for instance, nearby Madison County became the first municipality in New York State to initiate a solar energy program, Solarize Madison, with 35 home solar installations. The following year, inspired by Madison, Solarize Tompkins Southeast was launched in three Tomkins County towns — Caroline, Danby, and Dryden — to educate residents about solar energy and help many of them switch off fossil fuels and onto solar for electricity.
All three towns had earlier imposed bans on fracking within their jurisdictions. (Such town bans finally persuaded New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a statewide ban on fracking in December 2014.) “What was really exciting,” says Don Barber, Caroline’s town supervisor, “was [that] people who were on the opposite sides of the fence regarding gas drilling [fracking] were on the same side of the fence when it came to this program.”
In 2014, Solarize Tompkins Southeast completed its work and a new organization, Solar Tompkins, was incorporated to conduct a countywide solar campaign. “If you put the two programs together,” says Jonathan Comstock, a researcher in horticulture at Cornell University and chair of the Solar Tompkins board, “we more than tripled how much residential solar there was in the county before.”
Much of the Solar Tompkins work has been to educate citizens countywide. Solar energy is a new concept for most people, Comstock points out. “The education, the community participation, [have given] people more confidence that this is something for everybody, not just some kind of elite few… Now we’re hoping that everybody who knows somebody who just went solar should [spur] a self-perpetuating educational process.”
By January, the installation of solar panels had begun for 400 Tompkins households, with competition among installers keeping prices relatively low. Solar Tompkins has launched another program, HeatSmart Tompkins, for installing ground- and air-driven heat pumps. About three-quarters of the region’s energy use goes to heating, mostly supplied by fossil fuels. Heat pumps, which can be powered by fossil fuels or renewable sources, are what Comstock calls “super-efficient.”
“Running on modest amounts of electricity,” he says, “they make it possible and practical to heat with renewably generated energy. They are a major step on the path to zero-carbon homes.”
Another regional renewable project soon to get off the ground is Black Oak Wind Farm. Local investors own the farm and no corporation is involved, says Comstock, himself a Black Oak shareholder. On the state level, New York’s Public Service Commission has launched a program, Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), which promotes more efficient use of energy including wind and solar power. “There are a lot of high-tech ways of improving the function of the grid that can accommodate a larger amount of these intermittent forces effectively,” says Comstock, “and hopefully that’s what the REV will do.”
A 2013 study by Marc Jacobson of Stanford University demonstrated that renewable energies could supply 100% of New York State’s needs by 2030. While this conversion might involve high initial costs, eliminating fossil fuels would more than make up for them over time. Commenting on renewable energy development in the state so far, especially in the Finger Lakes region, Jacobson wrote in an email: “I believe that every step to install wind, water, and solar… energy in New York is a step in the right direction in that it will replace conventional fuels, which currently cause over 3,000 premature air pollution mortalities per year and hundreds of thousands more illnesses per year in the state.” He added that renewable conversion “will create over 80,000 more jobs in the state than it will cost,” and that it will “stabilize energy prices because the fuel costs of wind, water, and solar are zero.”
Despite these developments and the growth of opposition to it, Crestwood’s expanded methane storage plan continues to move forward, while the company awaits a decision on liquefied petroleum gases. Meanwhile, other corporations continue building fracking infrastructure (including pipelines and compressor stations) in the state. The fate of renewable energy in New York depends in great part on a 2015 New York State Energy Plan, a draft of which, to the disappointment of critics, included increased reliance on natural gas, which means gas fracked from shale formations, and funds for bolstering the infrastructure needed for increased gas consumption.
As economist Janette Barth wrote, “It is foolish for New York State to encourage a build-out of a natural gas infrastructure that will last for 30 to 50 years when climate change is upon us, and increased production and use of shale gas are likely to detrimentally impact our environment, our health, and our economy here in New York State. There is a much better fossil-fuel-free alternative and [the plan] should focus on transitioning to this better fossil fuel-free energy system immediately.”
Many Finger Lakes residents are doing just that: focusing on clean energy technology while an out-of-state energy giant works to turn the tranquil shores of Seneca Lake into a hub for fracked gas storage. It’s a battle whose outcome may offer a signal as to just where the region, the state, and perhaps the country are headed. “We’re in the middle of this climate crisis. Wind and solar are finally ramping up,” says Seneca Lake activist Sandra Steingraber. “In a few years, if we say ‘energy,’ the idea that it would come from fossil fuels might seem as crazy as if we said ‘telecommunications’ and people thought of the electric typewriter.”