Cayuga Lake: The Next Fracked Gas Battleground in the Finger Lakes

Fracking was banned in New York in 2014, but the fracking fight has never left the Finger Lakes region of the state.

While many New Yorkers were celebrating the fact that their own backyards were now safe from fracking, community members in the Finger Lakes were still organizing to stop a proposal to store fracked gas liquids in unstable salt caverns under Seneca Lake, the drinking water for 100,000 people.

They submitted thousands of well-researched comments to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to stop the project. They made calls to the Governor and rallied in Albany, and when those traditional means of public participation failed to be listened to and FERC approved the project, they put their bodies on the line and prevented trucks from entering the facility.

Nearly 700 arrests were made at the gates of the Crestwood facility, the site of the proposed gas storage, and the fight to protect Seneca Lake inspired communities fighting fracked gas infrastructure all over the world as one of the longest running sustained civil disobedience campaigns.

And in July of 2018 they won when the DEC denied a critical state permit halting the project.

But once again, the Finger Lakes region cannot fully celebrate an incredible, hard fought for grassroots victory because a new fracked gas monster now threatens Seneca Lake’s sister lake, Cayuga Lake.

Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake are the longest and deepest of the 11 Finger Lakes and they have become epicenters in New York’s battle to halt fracked gas infrastructure.

This summer, just a couple weeks before the stunning victory at Seneca Lake, a proposal was made to convert the 60+year-old Cayuga coal fired power plant that sits on the shores of the lake to a fracked gas power plant.

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College and resident of Trumansburg, which is on the west bank of Cayuga Lake, wants to see the coal plant retired but is vehemently opposed to a fracked gas conversion.

“I went swimming in this lake when I was pregnant. One of my kids is now 6’3, he learned to swim in this lake, ” said Steingraber. “I see my job as a mom to both protect my kids from harm and plan for their future. And as long as that plant across the lake is burning fossil fuels, I can’t do my job.”

Steingraber is a world-renowned biologist and has studied the health impacts of fracked gas for years. Her son, the one who learned to swim in Cayuga Lake and is now taller than she is, has asthma and she worries about the local air pollution from a fracked gas power plant.

“Methane, which always leaks from these plants, is not only a very potent greenhouse gas further contributing to the climate crisis we find ourselves in, but it’s also a precursor for smog,” said Steingraber.

And methane isn’t just leaking from fracked gas power plants. Scientists are finding high leakage rates at every point of the fracking process from extraction to delivery.

Methane is 84-100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02 for the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere, and if just 3% leaks, fracked gas is worse for the climate than coal.

For years the fracked gas industry has tried to paint their product as a clean alternative to coal, but climate science says otherwise. Any conversion from coal to fracked gas would go against Governor Cuomo’s climate goals for New York and put Steingraber’s children’s future at risk.

She is hoping the Governor will keep a commitment he made this summer on camera to Laura Shindell of Food and Water Watch to not approve any new fracked gas power plants.

The community is ready to make sure he does. They’ve stood up before to protect Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake.

“I call this news about the plant telling us this summer that they plan to convert to gas ‘the worst summer sequel ever’ because a few years ago we had a fight here. This plant tried some years ago to convert to burning gas and the community stood up,” said Irene Weiser of Fossil Free Tompkins. “We submitted thousands upon thousands of messages to the Governor and to the Public Service Commissioner, telling them, no we do not want this plant converting to gas.”

In addition to the local air pollution and climate impacts the proposed fracked gas power plant would have, Weiser is also concerned that the plan is to get the gas to the plant by truck.

“By trucks! Through our rural communities over all the hills and valleys,” said Weiser.

For many fracked gas power plants, the gas is delivered by pipeline, but the proposal for Cayuga is to have 50 -120 trucks a day deliver the gas. The plant hasn’t revealed any specific routes yet the trucks would take but Karen Edelstein of the FracTracker Alliance did an analysis of the demographics along possible routes the trucks could take using the main highways in and out of the plant.

“They’d be passing through communities of tens of thousands of people,” said Edelstein. “The analysis I did only looks at a 25-mile radius from the power plant, but just in that area the trucks would go past, on any given route, somewhere between 5-10 private schools, several dozen public schools, most of which are located on the main highways, a couple dozen daycare facilities, and almost 30 healthcare facilities.”

“This is a technology that needs to be put to bed,” said Weiser. “And instead what the Governor needs to do, what we need the state to do is to support solar and storage, which is a viable alternative.”

It’s a vision for the region that many who have fought fracked gas infrastructure have. A score of wineries that opposed gas storage at Seneca Lake have already gone solar and many people want their towns to embrace community solar so fracked gas power is never needed.   

But for now folks in the Finger Lakes still have to keep fighting the bad while building the new.

A local community group, No Fracked Gas Cayuga, has formed to organize to stop the coal to fracked gas conversation. Join them by signing the petition calling on Governor Cuomo to reject the Cayuga power plant’s application for a coal-to-gas conversion. SIGN HERE