A vent at an underground natural gas storage well in western Pennsylvania has been spewing massive amounts of planet-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 storage facility, located in a rural area an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh, is venting about 100 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, according to initial estimates. .
If accurate, that would total 1.1 billion cubic feet in emissions so far, which is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from burning 1,080 railcars of coal.
Pennsylvania environmental regulators issued a notice to the company about five possible 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 Friday by Equitrans spokeswoman Natalie Cox said there are “no immediate public safety concerns” and that the company has been working with a specialist well service company to plug the leak, which was reported by first time on November 6th.
The Rager facility is located in Jackson Township, at the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation, which has experienced a boom in gas production since the introduction of fracking more than a decade ago. Residents living four miles away from the leak told The Associated Press on Friday that they could hear the roar of pressurized gas escaping from the well and could smell the fumes.
Tracey Ryan, who homeschools her two young children at her home about three miles away, said the air smells of sulfur and the noise is so loud that she has been having trouble sleeping.
“When you’re lying in bed at night, it sounds like a jet plane taking off,” said the 39-year-old mother. “It is unreal, the noise that comes, and it is constant. … Everyone keeps telling us that we are safe. But you don’t feel safe if 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, producers add a chemical called mercaptan to give it a distinctive “rotten egg” odor that helps people notice leaks.
Methane’s earth-warming power is about 83 times stronger over 20 years than carbon dioxide that comes from car exhausts and power plant smokestacks. Oil and gas companies are the main industrial emitters of methane which, once released into the atmosphere, will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods.
The new leak comes as the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 11 updated proposed new rules to reduce 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 that the leak had stopped when workers flooded the leaking well, but the hiss of vent gas returned early Friday morning.
Cox cautioned that the estimate of 100 million cubic feet of natural gas leaks per day is preliminary and that the company would not be able to provide an accurate account of gas loss until an inventory verification study is completed.
The initial estimate would potentially place the Rager leak as smaller but comparable to the daily emissions from the worst uncontrolled gas leak in US history: a 2018 explosion at a ohio gas well owned by an ExxonMobil subsidiary and the 2015 disaster at the Alder Canyon storage facility in California.
The citations issued against the company by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection include failure to properly maintain and operate the gas facility, creating a public nuisance and producing a “public health and safety hazard.” The company was also cited for failing to provide state inspectors with “free and unrestricted access.”
Lauren Camarda, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency, said that when members of a state emergency response team first arrived at the site on November 7, they were initially denied entry and told “access was restricted.” only to critical personnel”.
Cox said that when the state team arrived, Equitrans contractors were still in the process of implementing a safety limit to prevent the introduction of a potential ignition source that could ignite the highly flammable methane that is leaking into the air.
The gas comes from a vent designed to relieve the intense pressures building up in the well and prevent a blowout. Cox said the company is now drawing gas from four storage wells to reduce overall pressure in the field. Efforts to plug the leak were expected to continue through the weekend, including attempts to plug the well with concrete.
Nearby residents said a resolution cannot come soon enough.
Edana Glessner, who runs a wedding venue 3.6 miles from the well site, said the smell made her nauseated and affected her business.
“You could hear it during the last wedding we had,” he said. “And it smelled, but everyone was fine with it. We said we were very sorry.”
Biesecker reported from Washington and Rubinkam from northeastern Pennsylvania.