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Huge Victory: Natural Gas Storage Plan Halted at Seneca Lake

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The We Are Seneca Lake civil disobedience campaign kicked off on Oct. 25, 2014. Colleen Boland

The news broke Wednesday in the most banal of venues: the biweekly environmental compliance report submitted by Arlington Storage Company to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).


Deep in the third paragraph of section B, this wholly owned subsidiary of the Houston-based gas storage and transportation giant, Crestwood Midstream, announced that it was walking away from its FERC-approved plan to increase its storage of methane (natural gas) in unlined, abandoned salt caverns along the shoreline of Seneca Lake.

In its own words, "Arlington has discontinued efforts to complete the Gallery 2 Expansion Project."

It was a blandly expressed ending to a dramatic conflict that has roiled New York's Finger Lakes region for more than six years. Together with a separate—and still unresolved—plan for lakeside storage of propane (LPG) in adjacent salt caverns, Crestwood's Arlington operation has been the focus of massive, unrelenting citizen opposition that has taken many forms.

The Gas Free Seneca Business Coalition has, at last count, 398 members. Together with the more than 100 members of the Finger Lakes Wine Business Coalition, this group has been a powerful voice in promoting wine and agri-tourism—a $4.8 billion industry in New York State—as the centerpiece of the Finger Lakes economy, deploying renewable energy systems for wineries and providing an alternative vision to Crestwood's plan to turn the region into "the gas storage and transportation hub" for entire Northeast. In letters, petitions, press conferences, interviews and editorials, these business leaders have made clear that industrialized gas storage on Seneca Lake—with all the attendant pipelines, compressor stations, flare stacks and air pollution—is incompatible with the pristine environment on which wine and tourism depend.

Local business leaders have also hammered home the message that gas storage is all risk and no reward for the region. The gas—methane or propane—is not intended for local use. All of it would be sent, via pipeline, to burner tips far from the Finger Lakes. Moreover, shoving massive amounts of fossil fuels into crumbly salt mines creates, as it turns out, only a handful of jobs.

Meanwhile, 32 municipalities—representing 1.2 million residents—have passed resolutions against gas storage on Seneca Lake. These efforts have played an important role in generating political pressure, capturing media attention, and raising awareness among community members about the public health threats created by storing highly pressurized, explosive gases in abandoned salt caverns situated below a lakeshore in an area crossed by geological fault lines.

Seneca Lake serves as a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Even absent earthquakes or catastrophic accidents, simply pressurizing the briny salt caverns with compressed gases may salinate the lake in ways that could potentially violate drinking water standards.

And then there's the direct action movement. We Are Seneca Lake—in which I have participated—has engaged in protests, marches and repeated acts of civil disobedience. Since October 2014, when construction on the Arlington project was authorized to begin and all legal appeals to FERC were exhausted, more than 650 arrests have taken place at the gates of the Crestwood compressor station site on the hillside above Seneca Lake. For the act of blockading trucks on Crestwood's driveway, some of us have gone to jail, serving sentences as long as nine days, while others have had their charges dismissed "in the interests of justice."

As the months went by, Crestwood, waiting on remaining approvals from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), did not begin construction.

We Are Seneca Lake continued protesting.

When the state clearances still did not arrive, FERC granted Crestwood a two-year extension to "accommodate the New York DEC's underground storage approval process."

We Are Seneca Lake continued protesting.

The power of our all-season civil disobedience movement did not lie in the daring risks that we took—no one ever scaled fences, rapelled down walls, went limp, or chained themselves to heavy equipment. We called ourselves the Girl Scouts of civil disobedience because participants engaged in actions whose sanctions were intentionally limited to violation-level charges (trespass or disorderly conduct).

Tantamount to traffic tickets, such charges do not result in criminal records (although one might choose, by refusal to pay a fine, to serve a jail sentence). This practice allowed arrestees to represent a diverse cross-section of area residents. Ranging in age from 18 to 92, Seneca Lake Defenders have included teachers, nurses, doctors, midwives, farmers, winemakers, faith leaders, town board members, military veterans, mothers, fathers, chefs, bird watchers, cancer survivors and numerous disabled individuals.

Our goal was to showcase the breadth and depth of citizen opposition to gas storage. Accordingly, we sought to make civil disobedience as inclusive as possible for as many people as possible, and, for those whose conscience so led them, as safe as possible.

We sustained our movement, season after season, by careful vetting of all participants, meticulous preparation for each action, and requiring that all those risking arrest or playing support roles undergo a training session in non-violence. As a result, We Are Seneca Lake maintained high levels of personal discipline during our actions and, through our almost ceremonial approach to civil disobedience, won the (somewhat begrudging) respect of the county sheriff and his deputies.

We did not turn away luminaries. Seneca Lake Defenders have, variously, included filmmaker Josh Fox, actors James Cromwell and John Hertzler, and environmental leaders Bill McKibben, Rachel Marco-Havens, David Braun and Wes Gillingham.

Seneca Lake Defenders blockaded while reading aloud from Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, while enjoying a potluck of local food, and while performing a concert. Our efforts were featured in the New Yorker and the New York Times, as well as in local and regional media. We have received messages of solidarity from around the world.

Unsurprisingly, none of the above activities are mentioned in the official explanation for why Crestwood is now abandoning its plans to expand methane storage.

Nor does it reference last month's incident at an underground gas storage facility in rural southwestern Indiana where a well failure prompted evacuations and a highway closure. Nor the blowout in California's gas storage field at Aliso Canyon where, from October 2015 until February 2016, more than 100,000 metric tons of methane spewed into the atmosphere, thousands of households and two schools were relocated, and many residents suffered illnesses from exposure to the emissions.

Instead, the company has this to say about why it is folding its tents:

"Despite its best efforts, Arlington has not been successful in securing long-term contractual commitments from customers that would support completion of the Gallery 2 Expansion Project. While demand for high-deliverability natural gas storage services remains robust in New York…bids for firm storage capacity which Arlington has received from time to time are not adequate to support the investment required to bring the project to completion."

Credible? For area resident Suzanne Hunt, who, as president of HuntGreen, advises wineries about their renewable energy options, the bigger question is how to make this explanation come true over and over again. In other words, let's use renewables to make wavering bids for fossil fuels even more unworthy of continued investment.

"The winery owners and other business leaders here didn't just say no to gas but also collectively invested million of dollars in clean energy systems both to demonstrate their economic and technical viability and to show the state that we are serious about protecting our unique and beautiful Finger Lakes region," Hunt said.

"As with any major transition, it has been challenging, but we are succeeding in demonstrating that renewables can meet our energy needs and enable economic growth without compromising the health and safety of people today and generations to come."

For her mother, Joyce Hunt, who is the co-owner of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, New York, the point is to demonstrate how the economic future of the region—based on agriculture, tourism and small business—is aligned with the long-term climate and energy security of the state.

"We applaud the governor and the DEC for withholding permits for natural gas storage, and we are all counting on the governor to deny the permits for LPG, recognizing that these caverns that are unfit for natural gas storage are likewise unfit for propane storage," she said.

But is Arlington's natural gas storage expansion project really gone for good? Maybe, maybe not. Fossil fuel infrastructure projects are always resurrectable. Even the Keystone XL pipeline is back in play. But for California native David Braun, who was arrested in a civil disobedience action at Seneca Lake last July, the point is in understanding that we are each, after all, our brother's keeper.

"None of these gas storage facilities are a problem until they are. And once you see firsthand the kind of devastation and disruption they cause—as I have seen at Aliso Canyon—you begin to understand your moral responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen somewhere else, to someone else," Braun said.

"I risked arrest at Seneca Lake because we only need to look at how the last bad idea turned out to know what the next one is going to do."

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