Let’s amend the famous line from Joni Mitchell’s “Yellow Taxi” to fit this moment in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, Big Energy seems determined to turn paradise, if not into a parking lot, then into a massive storage area for fracked natural gas. But there’s one way in which that song doesn’t quite match reality. Mitchell famously wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As part of a growing global struggle between Big Energy and a movement focused on creating a fossil-fuel-free future, however, the residents of the Finger Lakes seem to know just what they’ve got and they’re determined not to let it go. As a result, a local struggle against a corporation determined to bring in those fracked fuels catches a changing mood not just in the United States but across the world when it comes to protecting the planet, one place at a time, if necessary.
It’s difficult to imagine a more picturesque landscape, a more tranquil locale, a more bucolic garden spot than the Finger Lakes region. Each year, it draws tens of thousands of tourists to gaze at the waterfalls in Watkins Glen, to kayak and canoe in its deep waters, to dine in its farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy the homespun hospitality of its bed and breakfasts. Lush vineyards rustle on tree-studded hillsides. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it top honors last year, calling it “one of the most vibrant and promising wine regions of the world.” There are fruit and vegetable farms and sugar maples, too. In 2013, the state’s maple syrup production ranked second only to Vermont’s.
The eleven Finger Lakes are among the wonders of the natural world. At38 miles in length, Seneca Lake is the second longest of them, its 4.2 trillion gallons of water provide drinking water for 100,000 people. Its shallows are home to warm-water fish like smallmouth bass and yellow perch. Its deep waters play host to lake trout and Atlantic salmon and have created a unique microclimate in the surrounding region, neither too cold in winter nor too warm in summer, allowing agriculture to flourish.
Perhaps inspired by the ecological marvel that is their home, many of the Finger Lakes vineyards and vegetable farms rely on sustainable production methods. At the same time, wineries, hundreds of businesses, and individual families have begun converting from the use of fossil fuels to alternative energies. Tompkins County, adjacent to Seneca Lake, has even developed a solar energy program that has inspired similar efforts in counties across the state. A regional wind farm is scheduled to start operating in 2016. Clean and green seems to be the ethos of the region, but all that could change fast — and soon.
The Battle of Seneca Lake
There’s a battle brewing between the burgeoning clean-energy future embraced by this region and the dirty energy sources on which this planet has been running since the Industrial Revolution. Over the last six years,Crestwood Midstream Partners, a Texas-based corporation, has been pushing to build a gas storage and transportation hub for the entire northeastern United States at Seneca Lake. The company’s statements boast about setting up shop “atop the Marcellus Shale play,” a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, hotspot. It plans to connect pipelines that will transmit two kinds of fracked gas — methane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — probably from areas of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. These will be stockpiled in long-abandoned salt caverns, the remnants of a nineteenth-century salt-mining industry that capitalized on the remains of a 300-million-year-old ocean that once was here.
Against the project, a motley coalition of farmers and vintners, doctors and lawyers, clean energy companies and reluctant do-it-yourself activists are focused on protecting this ecological marvel. Their goal: to guide the region toward a fossil-fuel-free future despite the deep pockets and corporate savvy of an out-of-state energy firm.