Finger Lakes’ "Community Character" Sinks Gas Storage Scheme

Map of the Finger Lakes Region

The recent rejection of a massive gas storage facility along the shores of Seneca Lake by New York State's environmental commissioner is not only a win to protect the beautiful Finger Lakes region, but also sets an important precedent for other communities across the state seeking to prevent unwarranted industrialization from fossil fuel and other large-scale development projects. The Commissioner's determination, issued on July 12th, concluded that the necessary environmental permits could not be issued primarily because the industrial project was simply out of step with the rural character and planning goals of the Finger Lakes.

The Finger Lakes region is located south of Rochester and west of Syracuse, and encompasses 11 lakes—formed over the last two million years by glacial carving of old stream valleys. With more than a dozen state parks, the region is known for its scenery, tourism, and wine production. Indeed, due to the unique climate created by deep lakes and steep slopes it is one of the most acclaimed winemaking regions in the Eastern United States. Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, is home to the highest concentration of wineries.

It’s here that Crestwood Midstream Partners, L.P. of Houston, Texas, called for storing an enormous amount of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in old, underground salt caverns near the western shore of Seneca Lake. In its most recent iteration, the gas storage facility was designed to store up to 1.5 million barrels of propane gas. 

The opposition to the gas storage scheme was led primarily by Gas Free Seneca, a diverse coalition of businesses, residents and regional governments—and represented superbly by lawyers from EarthjusticeSeneca Pure Water Association, a two-decade old group dedicated to protecting the high drinking water quality of Seneca Lake, also played a key role in fighting against the project—as did a business coalition of wine growers.

NRDC represented 12 municipalities—including the City of Geneva, the Village of Watkins Glen and the Town of Waterloo—in the administrative process that ultimately led to the Commissioner's July 12th decision.

There were at least three primary arguments against the plan. First, that the project would jeopardize the water quality of Seneca Lake. Second, that the industrial nature of the project was out of character for the region and community—and would threaten the agritourism economy. And third, that the storage plant posed unacceptable public safety risks in the event gas escaped from the caverns. 

One additional argument that was raised both in the public sphere and in the state administrative permit hearing was that there was no serious consideration over whether there were alternatives to constructing the gas storage facility, or whether there was any need for it to meet the public's demand for propane.

Seneca Lake/Flickr

DEC Environmental Commissioner, Basil Seggos, denied the permit application, finding the proposed facility would irreparably damage the character of the Seneca Lake area, including its vineyards, farmlands, and natural areas. In doing so, he reversed his own agency's hearing officer who had previously rejected the concerns raised by the municipalities, businesses, and residents.

While the Commissioner denied the permit due to its unacceptable adverse impacts on community character, he also found that if he had not denied the permit outright, there were additional issues—such as the integrity of the salt storage caverns and public safety preparedness—that would have to be examined further in an adjudicatory hearing.

Commissioner Seggos also wrote that even if he had not denied the permit, given New York's recent climate and energy goals, the state would have had to hold a hearing on whether there was a statewide need for this project. Specifically, he cited the State's 2015 Energy Plan, which establishes climate and clean energy goals, including a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050, a commitment to source 50% of New York's electricity from renewables by 2030.

In the end, the decision is first and foremost a victory for all the individuals, groups, and businesses in the greater Seneca Lake region who fought against this project. But it is also a very important statewide decision because it elevates impacts on community character to a new level and recognizes that in certain circumstances, industrialization of an area largely devoted to agriculture, viniculture, and other rural pursuits simply cannot be justified under New York law—that is, the costs of industrialization are outweighed by the benefits of leaving the land as it is.

Lastly, Commissioner Seggos' decision provides a helpful analysis on how future fossil fuel infrastructure projects could be assessed under the state's environmental review process regarding their need and whether more climate-friendly alternatives have been fully considered. And since the oil and gas industry appears intent as ever on building all the infrastructure it can—and thereby lock-in a continuing dependency on fossil fuels—this decision comes at a crucial time.

*Thanks to Albert Butzel, co-counsel with NRDC in representing the Seneca Lake Communities, for assisting with the drafting of this blog, as well as Jhena Vigrass, a Program Assistant at NRDC. I also wish to acknowledge Katherine Sinding, Daniel Raichel and Jonathon Krois for their past legal representation of the Seneca Lake Communities on behalf of NRDC.