Aug. 26–FARMINGTON — The $141 million Empire North project that would pump more natural gas from fracking operations in Pennsylvania through the Finger Lakes region has caught the attention of local environmentalists.
High-volume hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” was banned in New York state in 2014 over health risks. The process involves injecting large amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressures to release oil and natural gas from rock formations.
Despite the ban, fracked gas is what’s piped through the state and supplies New Yorkers. Concerns center on emissions, oversight and the impact on climate change.
For some, it also presents an ethical issue.
“Yes, we did ban fracking,” said Sue Dazie, a Victor resident involved with environmental causes in the region. “So, why should we allow (natural gas from fracking) through our state? We have already turned it down and now they want us to pay a price through our towns.”
Drawing attention are plans to build a natural gas compressor station in Farmington that lies along the route the Empire North project takes through Ontario County. In the Finger Lakes region, Empire runs 249 miles of pipeline transporting natural gas to more than 1 million customers, according to project parent company National Fuel.
The Empire North project includes minor upgrades to an existing regulator station in Victor and to a station in Tioga County, Pennsylvania. The project also calls for increasing the allowable operating pressure of the existing Empire Connector Pipeline that runs through Victor and Corning in Steuben County. Empire must meet federal environmental regulations and address impacts regarding issues such as noise, lighting, emissions, wildlife and water quality.
The 32,000-horsepower electric compressor station off Hook Road in Farmington promises $25 million in tax revenue over 10 years as increased pressure allows more gas to flow through the line. The new compressor station will be adjacent to an RG&E substation, south of I-90 and east of Hook Road, just north of the town highway complex.
The good, the bad?
Any natural gas in New York state is now due to the abundance and cost of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale that is hydraulically fractured, said Karen Merkel, corporate communications for National Fuel.
“All of our gas is coming from Northeast production,” Merkel said, citing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, where fracking takes place. “It is most economical, so 100 percent of what’s transported today across New York state is hydraulically fractured.”
As a result, customers are seeing their lowest cost for natural gas in 20 years, said Merkel.
According to National Fuel, the average annual customer bill (weather adjusted) has decreased over the past 20 years. In 2006, the average residential bill was just over $1,800. In 2016, an average bill dipped below $800, a saving of more than $1,000 a year.
In additional to lower consumer costs and local tax benefits, she stressed regulation and oversight.
“We are held to very high standards from federal, state and local municipalities,” Merkel said. “We not only meet but exceed those stringent regulations.”
The Farmington compressor station will be National Fuel’s first in the state run on electricity, using electric motor drives and a vent gas recovery system with no stack emissions.
Farmington Town Supervisor Peter Ingalsbe said the project was well received during an informational session last fall. The new facility will be built on about 10 acres of about 92 acres Empire bought from a private landowner and then put in a major gas line. The location enabling Empire to tap into electricity will make it “a cleaner operation,” the supervisor said. The location will allow for the continued use of growing crops on the majority of the property.
Ingalsbe said Empire is going through a federal environmental review process. The project is on the schedule for a Sept. 7 meeting of the town Project Review Committee. Participants will include Farmington staff, engineers, and may involve state Department of Transportation and county planning officials.
At an Aug. 3 corporate earnings conference, National Fuel President and CEO Ronald Tanski remarked on progress with Empire North.
“With respect to our growth projects and our interstate pipeline business, we’re in the detailed design phase of our Empire North … expansion project and we’re still planning for a fiscal 2020 in-service date,” stated Tanski in a transcript.
Fracked gas in NY
“It goes to the heart of the apparent irony that New York state would say, ‘No shale gas coming out,’ but we’re allowing any amount of shale gas into the state,” said Anthony Ingraffea, an engineer at Cornell University whose work has tied fracking to various environmental ills, including climate change.
His remarks made last December for an NPR, Dec. 8 reporting project, State Impact Pennsylania, echo what others are saying as they keep watch over the natural gas industry in New York.
Wendy Low is with Rochester People’s Climate Coalition, a non-partisan network of more than 100 organizations working on solutions to climate change. Members includes businesses and faith, civic, labor, and environmental groups. Low, who lives in Rochester and has family in Farmington, said reassurances about the new compressor station in Farmington being a cleaner facility due to its being run on electricity ignores an important aspect — the release of the greenhouse gas methane.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Methane is released into the atmosphere “during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Natural gas and petroleum systems are the largest source” of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA.
Low, who is also with the group Mothers Out Front, an organization working to ensure a livable climate for future generations, said she and other activists are raising awareness of projects like Empire North. That, in addition to promoting clean, naturally replenished energy resources such as sunlight, wind and geothermal.
Because the proposed compressor station is electric, the state Department of Environmental Conservation does not require the project to receive a DEC air permit. National Fuel does need to file a Notice of Intent to qualify for a DEC general permit for anticipated stormwater discharges during construction activities. The general permit does not require a public comment period, according to the DEC, which had not received a Notice of Intent for the project as of this past Thursday.
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project recently visited New York to report on the first phase of its New York Environmental Health Study. This study focuses on air exposures and potential health effects resulting from the transmission of natural gas across the state, including through the Finger Lakes region. The study pinpoints specific areas and health risks due to compressor station emissions.
The study recommends that the natural gas industry “employ the best available control technology to remove particles and thereby reduce exposures.”
National Fuel’s Merkel said the Empire North project “is currently under the stringent” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review process. FERC will determine if there will be additional public hearings or scoping sessions, Merkel said.
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