Gas Storage Expansion Plan Adds New Wrinkle To Fracking Controversy

opposition grows to Inergy gas storage in NYSA proposal to expand natural gas storage in the heart of New York State’s Finger Lakes wine region has been met with heated opposition by local activists and winery owners, due to its potential impact on the region’s water resources, air quality and tourism industry.

The storage facility itself is just part of the problem, though. Those opposed to the plan are also concerned that it will enable the intrusion of the natural gas drilling method called fracking into the Finger Lakes region, bringing the risk of negative impacts to a wide area beyond the location of the storage facility itself.

The Inergy natural gas storage facility

The storage expansion is being proposed by Missouri-based Inergy LP, a leading natural gas transportation and storage provider in the Northeast and Texas, with additional storage and transportation in natural gas liquid and crude oil.

Inergy owns two abandoned salt caverns on Seneca Lake in Reading, New York, in which it plans to store natural gas and liquid petroleum gas. That is the heart of the problem as far as local activists are concerned.

The basic concern is that the new storage facility introduces new risks and impacts into an agricultural and recreational economy that has, until recently, co-existed with a certain amount of industrial activity.

The main area of risk is the structural integrity of the caverns. Although Inergy claims they are sound, previous analyses show significant problems that could lead to the migration of volatile gas out of the caverns, a not-uncommon occurrence among similar storage facilities in other areas of the U.S.

The migration risk could pose problems for communities miles away from the site, as illustrated by the Yaggy gas storage facility disaster that hit the city of Hutchinson, Kansas in 2001. Though eight miles from the Yaggy site, on January 17 of that year, downtown Hutchinson was rocked by natural gas exploding up from the ground, destroying two buildings.

Later on the 17th, “geyser-like fountains of natural gas and brine” as high as 30 feet appeared a few miles east of the first explosion, and on the 18th, natural gas exploded under a mobile home, resulting in two deaths.

Though at first glance it might seem highly improbable for natural gas to travel so far underground, the  Kansas Geological Survey revealed potential pathways through rock formations, helped along by a “fist-sized” hole in a pipe casing and other infrastructure issues at the Yaggy facility.

Emerging cracks in the natural gas boom

The storage facility controversy also exposes new issues for natural gas, which until recently enjoyed a reputation for emitting far less greenhouse gases than coal. Since gas is supposedly a “cleaner” fuel, the development of new gas fields has been touted as a climate benefit. That includes the Marcellus shale region, which encompasses parts of New York.

However, the advantage of natural gas over coal is only accepted science as far as the burning stage goes. Evidence is mounting that earlier stages of the natural gas lifecycle involve significant greenhouse gas emissions, which could cancel out its entire advantage. Fugitive methane emissions or leaks from gas fields are one area of concern, along with additional losses incurred throughout the transportation, storage and processing infrastructure.

Add in the risk of water contamination posed by fracking, which involves pumping massive quantities of a chemical brine underground, and the benefits of gas over coal fade even further.

Also not helping the gas industry’s case is growing evidence that the common practice of disposing spent fracking fluid in abandoned wells can cause earthquakes.

That puts additional heat on the storage facility, since it could enable the expansion of fracking throughout the Marcellus shale formation, including most of the Finger Lakes. Though advocates of fracking point out that the Finger Lakes region has hosted numerous conventional gas wells for decades, that argument does not address the new impacts that would be introduced by fracking.

Local wine industry steps up

Aside from a catastrophic failure in the storage facility itself, opponents of the proposal have also raised concerns about the air quality impacts of intensive truck and rail traffic as well as impacts on Lake Seneca, which is a drinking water source for about 100,000 people.

Opposition has been steadily growing this spring, at least on a local level. As reported last month by Derrick Ek of the Corning Leader, the Seneca County Board of Advisors went on record in opposition, with the chair of the county Environmental Affairs Committee stating:

Putting one of the region’s most valuable assets, Seneca Lake, at risk of suffering irreparable damage is not only unacceptable, it’s also unbelievable. The general consensus is that this is a no-brainer. It’s just too plain risky to move forward.

A state representative from adjacent Schuyler County has also officially weighed in against the plan.

Meanwhile, local winery owners have already mobilized against the storage facility, and an impressively long list of local winery owners is included in the membership of Gas Free Seneca, which has been taking the lead in organizing protests and legal action.

A tipping point for fossil fuels

Until recently, opposition to fossil fuel projects has dealt primarily with impacts at the beginning and end of the lifecycle, namely extraction and consumption.

Now a pattern is emerging in which communities are also digging in their heels against new storage and transportation facilities, which is a particularly touchy subject where overseas exports are a major goal of the operation.

Aside from organized opposition to the Inergy facility, organized opposition has also aligned against new coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, as well as against the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline in the Midwest.

[Image: Wine by alex ranaldi]

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

5 responses

  1. Tina,

    It is so frustrating to read articles such as this one. I know you are 100% sincere in your convictions and that is where the frustration lies. Had you been adequately educated with respect to how the economy functions and the interrelated implications to jobs, incomes and generating tax revenues for public services, then you would examine and report on natural gas issues in a more objective manner. Rather, you clearly and sincerely, believe in the black/white, green energy good/fossil fuel evil ideology that fails to take into account the many negative consequences of pursuing any policy course that results in significant unintended consequences.

    I doubt anyone would not want to live in a world where affordable energy was created free of pollution. I doubt anyone willing embraces the risks, however remote, of fires and explosions from energy infrastructure. I also doubt anyone wishes to die in an airplane crash, train derailment or auto accident. However our economy, our jobs, our living standards, your job, your living standard is dependent on efficient transportation. So too, it is dependent on efficient energy production and distribution.

    I suspect you are not entirely aware of the extent to which energy is a substantial requirement for everything that you do and consume. I suspect you are also not aware of the limited ability, given the current state of technology, for green energy to take the place of existing sources on the scale needed or the devastating consequences to incomes and living standards of attempting to convert entirely to an extremely high cost green energy world. Perhaps a time will come when this can be accomplished, but the technology is simply not sufficiently advanced or affordable to do so today.

    To be an advocate for the development of green energy is fine. To be an advocate for the use of subsidies to accelerate the application of green energy is debatable but understandable. But to be an advocate in opposition to existing energy sources that we must continue to use for many years to maintain and create jobs, particularly natural gas which is in many respects is the least polluting of the existing energy sources, is unfortunate and unwise.

    I hope you will take some time to learn more about the role that energy plays in any economy and its importance in maintaining a society which has the means to support its population, reduce poverty and afford essential public services. If you do so, it will help you to better understand what needs to be done to improve our world today and for future generations.

    1. Where did Tina suggest she didn’t understand the importance of energy to our society? I could just as easily argue that you don’t understand the negative attributes of our fossil fuel addiction, perhaps even our addiction to cheap energy. I should also call it artificially cheap energy which is massively subsidized by the fact that externalities (global warming, health issues, war) are not appearing on anyone’s balance sheet.

      I could go on and on, but you seem to be among the school of though that believes those who care about the environment want people to live in the stone ages. That is what Fox news tells people, not the way people actually think.

    2. Thank you, ima, for your insightful description of my energy awareness. You seem to know me better than I know myself. To be honest, I had no idea that the extent of my knowledge about the role that energy plays in any economy and its importance in maintaining a society which has the means to support its population, reduce poverty and afford essential services could be easily met, if not bested, by any child who has made it past the first grade. So yes, now I feel inadequate and depressed, but you still haven’t addressed the facts of the issue at hand.

  2. It always baffles me that pro-fossil fuel types have this kind of knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone publishes a story that criticizes the industry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, What part of, “this is an inappropriate site for this facility”, don’t people understand? Inergy is a Kansas City, MO LLC that is trying to industrialize the shores of Seneca Lake, the very heart of the Finger Lakes in NY State. This is a region that has successfully created a vibrant, sustainable recreation, agricultural and tourism based economy and that is why there are nearly 150 local small businesses on a coalition opposing this project. Inergy doesn’t produce, buy or sell propane, butane or natural gas. They get paid to store and transport it. Think giant rental storage unit.

    The bottom line, ima, is WE live here and WE DON’T WANT THIS HERE!! Feel free to visit our website at and learn a little bit about this issue before you willy nilly post comments like this one.

  3. From the article, “Putting one of the region’s most valuable assets, Seneca Lake, at risk of suffering irreparable damage is not only unacceptable, it’s also unbelievable. The general consensus is that this is a no-brainer. It’s just too plain risky to move forward.”

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