Gas storage well leak in Pennsylvania spews methane

A vent at an underground natural gas storage facility in western Pennsylvania has been spewing massive amounts of warming methane into the atmosphere for more than 11 days, and attempts to plug the leak have so far failed.

Owner Equitrans Midstream said the well at its Rager Mountain deposit, located in a rural area about 1.5 hours east of Pittsburgh, is venting about 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, according to initial estimates.

If accurate, that would total 1.1 billion cubic feet of emissions so far, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from burning 1,080 coal cars.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to the company of five potential violations of state law. As a precaution, the Federal Aviation Administration has restricted aircraft within a 1-mile radius of the leaking well.

A written statement provided on Friday by Equitrans spokeswoman Natalie Cox said “there are no immediate public safety concerns” and the company has worked with a specialist well services contractor to plug the leak, which was first detected on March 6. was reported in November.

The Rager facility is located in Jackson Township, in the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation, which has seen a boom in gas production since the introduction of hydraulic fracturing more than a decade ago. Local residents living up to four miles from the leak told The Associated Press on Friday they could hear the rumble of pressurized gas escaping from the well and smell the fumes.

Tracey Ryan, who homeschools her two young children at her home about three miles away, said the air reeked of sulfur and the noise was so bad she had trouble sleeping.

“When you lie in bed at night, it sounds like a jet plane taking off,” said the 39-year-old mother. “It’s unreal, the noise that comes and it’s constant. … Everyone just tells us that we are safe. But it doesn’t feel safe when you can hear and smell it.”

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is colorless and odorless. But when the gas is processed for transportation and sale, manufacturers add a chemical called mercaptan to give it a distinctive “rotten egg” smell that helps alert people to leaks.

The earth-warming power of methane over 20 years is about 83 times stronger than the carbon dioxide that comes from car exhausts and power plant chimneys. Oil and gas companies are the largest industrial emitters of methane, which, once released into the atmosphere, will disrupt the climate for decades and contribute to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

The new leak comes as the Environmental Protection Agency updated proposed new rules on Nov. 11 aimed at reducing methane and other harmful emissions from oil and gas operations.

The Rager facility has 10 storage wells with a total storage capacity of 9 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Equitrans announced Thursday the leak was stopped when workers flooded the leaking well, but the hiss of escaping gas returned early Friday morning.

Cox warned that the estimate of 100 million cubic feet of natural gas leaking per day is preliminary and the company will not be able to provide an accurate account of the gas loss until an inventory verification study is completed.

The first estimate would place the Rager leak as potentially smaller but comparable to daily emissions from the worst uncontrolled gas leaks in US history — a 2018 blowout at an Ohio gas well owned by an ExxonMobil subsidiary and the Disaster in 2015 at the Camp Aliso Canyon facility in California.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s subpoenas against the company include failures to properly maintain and operate the gas facility that create a public nuisance and pose a “hazard to public health and safety.” The company was also accused of failing to provide state inspectors with “free and unrestricted access”.

Lauren Camarda, spokeswoman for the state Environmental Protection Agency, said that when members of a state emergency response team first arrived at the site on Nov. 7, they were initially denied entry and told “access was restricted to critical personnel only.” .

Cox said that when the state team arrived, Equitrans contractors were still in the process of implementing a safety boundary to avoid introducing a potential ignition source that could ignite the highly flammable methane that is being released into the air.

The gas comes from a vent designed to relieve the intense pressure building up in the well and prevent blowout. Cox said the company is now pulling gas from four storage wells to reduce overall pressure in the field. Efforts to plug the leak were expected to continue throughout the weekend, including attempts to plug the well with concrete.

Local residents said a solution couldn’t come soon enough.

Edana Glessner, who runs a wedding venue 3.6 miles from the fountain, said the smell makes her nauseous and is affecting her business.

“You could hear it at our last wedding,” she said. “And it smelled, but everyone was fine with that. We said we’re really sorry.”

————

Biesecker reported from Washington and Rubinkam from northeastern Pennsylvania.

Source