A Massive Gas Leak in Pennsylvania is Adding to Climate Scrutiny


The 13-day release from an Equitrans storage well effectively erased the emissions gains from about half the EVs that were sold in the US last year.

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(Bloomberg) — While diplomats in Sharm El-Sheikh were hammering out a historic agreement last month to help developing nations cope with the crippling consequences of a warmer planet, one of the biggest US climate disasters in recent years was unfolding in a rural corner of Pennsylvania. 

A leak from a 1 5/8-inch (4.1 centimeter) vent on a natural gas storage well operated by Equitrans Midstream Corp. was discovered on Nov. 6 and lasted for 13 days, allowing more than 1 billion cubic feet to escape. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has a devastating impact on the climate if released directly into the atmosphere, where it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in its first two decades. That single Equitrans release effectively erased emissions gains from about half of the 656,000 electric vehicles sold in the US last year. The incident is one of the biggest blows to the credibility of the US gas industry since the Aliso Canyon leak that began in late 2015 in California and lasted more than 100 days.The magnitude of the Equitrans release, and the operator’s inability to halt it quickly, intensifies scrutiny on an industry the International Energy Agency has said must do more to curb deliberate and accidental releases if it wants to play an active role in the energy transition. Leaks are one of the main climate risks facing gas suppliers, and a new generation of multispectral satellites has made it easier to spot major emissions, leading to a greater understanding of just how pervasive they are. Bloomberg News has used satellite observations since July 2020 to identify about 70 methane releases linked to the energy and waste sectors from Argentina to Turkmenistan, including almost two dozen in the United States. The coverage has triggered government investigations in the US and Bangladesh, but most methane releases worldwide still go unreported. “The fact that massive releases are persisting even in regions where they’re properly quantified speaks to the scope of the challenge,” said Antoine Vagneur-Jones, head of trade and supply chains at research company BloombergNEF. 

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With more countries joining a global pledge to curtail methane emissions, the Biden administration last month strengthened plans to limit releases from the sector. The measures, which are set to be finalized in 2023, would require companies to do more to stifle leaks and stipulates that even small oil and gas wells and abandoned facilities must meet detection and repair requirements.The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the measures would reduce methane from covered sources by 87% below 2005 levels in 2030.

In the case of Equitrans, statements from government regulators suggest the response was inadequate. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said in a scathing report last week that it was investigating the incident and has subpoenaed documents from the company. The regulator said it had observed “numerous violations and emergent incidents requiring the temporary plugging of two additional storage wells.”  It issued the company three orders, including one to halt gas injection into the Rager Mountain Gas Storage Reservoir until a third-party audit of the wells has been completed. It said the orders were needed to “abate ongoing and imminent threats to health, safety, and the environment.”  The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is also investigating the incident.

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Equitrans said in a statement that it is coordinating with state and federal agencies and responding to all requests. The company said it categorically disagrees with a DEP statement that found its cooperation inadequate. 

The company initially said it halted the flow of gas on Nov. 17, but revised that after venting resumed. The well was finally plugged on Nov. 19. It took two days for all the equipment to arrive at the site and Equitrans said efforts to stem the flow were also delayed by weather conditions and an obstruction in the wellbore.The company said it is conducting “a comprehensive review of all storage wells at Rager Mountain” and a “complete environmental assessment.” 

Although the Equitrans well is in a rural part of southwest Pennsylvania, surrounded by forests and rolling hills, the roar of the pressurized gas escaping was so loud that residents living four miles (6.4 km) away could hear it, the Associated Press reported. At the request of state officials, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed temporary flight restrictions within a 1-mile radius and up to 1,000 feet (304 meters) above the site. Natural gas is typically composed of between 70% and 90% methane. The Equitrans leak spewed 1.29 billion cubic feet of gas into the atmosphere over its 13-day duration, which is equivalent to roughly 18,800 to 24,200 metric tons of methane. The global warming potential of that much methane over a 20-year period is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions from between 343,000 and 442,000 US cars.It’s unclear if the incident will cause further complications or delays for the $6.6 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline project through West Virginia, which is operated by Equitrans but has been tangled in environmental and other challenges for years. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who represents the state, failed this year to pass legislation that would speed up the development of MVP and other energy infrastructure. His proposed permitting reform was prevented by lawmakers last week from inclusion in a must-pass defense bill.“Leaks on this scale probably equate to some fairly hefty lost revenue and costs to fix, in addition to the reputational risks,” Emma Champion, who heads regional energy transitions at BNEF, said in an email.Equitrans has said it was investigating the root cause of the incident and deciding what to do with the well that has, for now, been sealed with concrete. Even though the gas leak has stopped, there may be additional repercussions for the company, as there were following Aliso Canyon.  Southern California Gas Co. and its parent Sempra Energy agreed last year to pay out as much as $1.8 billion to settle years of civil claims from local residents over that disaster. “The biggest financial risk here is always going to be civil suits based on health claims,” according to Brandon Barnes, Senior Litigation Analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. The question for gas companies is how to prevent such incidents, especially as infrastructure ages but remains in use. Kurt Klapkowski, Pennsylvania DEP’s acting deputy secretary for oil and gas management told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he expects a comprehensive review of the state’s gas storage industry.

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The George L Reade 1 well was initially drilled in 1965 to produce oil and gas. After the hydrocarbons dried up, the site was converted into a natural gas storage well in 1971 and was reconditioned in 1993, according to the state. The site is now a part of Equitrans’ Rager Mountain facility that can stockpile up to 9 billion cubic feet of gas. 

Underground natural gas storage facilities in the US weren’t specifically regulated by the PHSMA until after the Aliso Canyon leak, which is the largest natural gas release ever recorded in the US from downstream pipelines or storage infrastructure, according to Bill Caram, executive director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit that promotes safety and greater industry transparency.

PHSMA data suggests that the Equitrans leak is the largest accidental release from downstream facilities since Aliso Canyon.Intentional releases such as ventings and blowdowns are not generally reportable and unlikely to be of that magnitude, Caram said.

“A billion cubic feet of natural gas, the majority of which is climate-wrecking methane, is massive no matter how you look at it,” he said in an email.

—With assistance from Zachary Mider.



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