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Tina Casey headshot

Gas Storage Expansion Plan Adds New Wrinkle To Fracking Controversy

By Tina Casey

A 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 Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

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