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Tina Casey headshot

New York State Wineries Dodge a Fracking Bullet ... Or Maybe Not

By Tina Casey

If you heard that loud sighing sound coming from New York state earlier this month, that was probably a sigh of relief as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo finally agreed to a statewide ban on fracking. The ban followed the release of the state's Department of Health study, which basically concluded that the known unknowns of this unconventional method of drilling for natural gas amounted to a significant potential for adverse public health impacts that could not be ignored.

We're also guessing that business considerations came into play. In the past, fracking was generally confined to thinly populated areas of the western U.S. Now that it has become more common in the more heavily developed Northeast, fracking has been bumping up against pushback from stakeholders in established, local businesses. News of the fracking ban was probably most welcome by New York's thriving upstate tourism and agriculture sectors, both of which come together in the growing popularity of winery tours.

However, the cheering had barely died down before news items from communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio reminded us that the fracking operation itself is only one part of the complex natural gas lifecycle. New York's wineries are not out of the woods yet. When you consider the transportation and storage issues involved in getting natural gas out of the ground and into market, additional risks for local businesses emerge. The fracking ban does not address those risks.

New York fracking risks: Natural gas storage

One thing to keep in mind is that along with the fracking boom has come an increase in growth all along the transportation stage, which includes a growth in natural gas storage facilities.

Last year we took note of one such storage project: the proposed expansion of a natural gas storage facility using salt caverns in the heart of New York's Finger Lakes wine country.

That project is under the auspices of Missouri-based Inergy LP. While Inergy claims that the caverns are sound, local organizations have called attention to problems with the structural integrity of the formations.

Local activists have also mobilized against the Crestwood salt cavern storage facility for natural gas just north of Watkins Glen. Citing concern over potential methane leaks, a group affiliated with We Are Seneca Lake blockaded the facility last week, capping a two-month civil disobedience campaign that has already racked up 170 arrests.

Fracking ban or not, natural gas from other states will continue to make its way into New York, so expect more attention to focus on those storage facilities.

Virginia fracking risks: Transportation

Another form of pressure that upstate New York residents and businesses could face is the construction of additional natural gas pipelines.

The natural gas pipeline issue came to the fore last week, when our friends over at FuelFix.com reported that landowners are resisting the efforts of Dominion Resources to build the new Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline. The route goes through West Virginia and North Carolina as well as Virginia, affecting 3,331 properties.

According to FuelFix, so far the company has filed suit against 47 landowners in Virginia who have failed to grant Dominion access to survey the pipeline route through their property. Another 50 or so lawsuits are anticipated in the near future.

While relatively rare in comparison to the many thousands of miles of pipe webbing the U.S., natural gas pipeline disasters do happen, and the risk potential clearly undermines the efforts of local economies to build a bucolic, healthful brand.

Pennsylvania fracking risks: Wastewater

Pennsylvania illustrates another risk feature in the natural gas lifecycle, which is how to account for the many millions of gallons of wastewater generated by fracking operations.

Frequently, fracking wastewater is shipped offsite in tanker trucks and transported across state lines for disposal.

That disposal could include use of spent fracking brine as a road de-icer, so even if New York state bans fracking it could still serve as a disposal resource for fracking wastewater.

That opens up two cans of worms. In addition to the impact of spreading wastewater on open roads, the Pennsylvania situation draws attention to the emergency response hazards posed by an increase in tanker truck traffic.

On Dec. 26, the Star-Beacon, an Ohio newspaper, zeroed in on the fracking wastewater transportation issues that have beset Pennsylvania. Here are two key snippets:

"Often truck cargo isn’t labeled. Much of the byproduct from drillers’ fracking process — including the briny, chemically laced water — is classified as 'residual waste.' Drilling waste has been exempt from federal hazardous waste rules since the 1980s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So there are rarely placards on the trucks."

"The passage of those trucks is often fraught. Many drivers hail from Texas or Oklahoma – places without the snow-slicked mountains typical of Northern Tier winters ... And accidents are more and more common."

Ohio fracking risks

The Star-Beacon's interest in Pennsylvania fracking is tied to the concerns of its readership in Ashtabula County. Known for its vinyards and covered bridges, this Ohio county shares similarities with upstate New York communities that have developed an economic foundation that is incompatible, to say the least, with fracking.

Nevertheless, fracking could come to Ashtabula County. Back on Nov. 9, the Star-Beacon reported on some of the economic benefits that could come along with it, such as the sale of drilling rights and an increase in hotel bookings.

We're guessing that the Dec. 26 article will raise plenty of red flags among Ashtabula stakeholders in the winery and tourism sectors.

However, as with the situation in upstate New York, a local or even a statewide ban on fracking doesn't necessarily insulate a community from impacts related to transportation, storage and disposal operations.

Image (cropped): By Stephen Depolo via flickr.com, creative commons license.

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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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