Leak at Pennsylvania gas storage well spewing methane

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 efforts 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 about 1.5 hours east of Pittsburgh, is pumping about 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, according to initial estimates.

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

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

A written statement issued Friday by Equitrans spokeswoman Natalie Cox said there are “no immediate public safety concerns” and the company is working with a specialized well service company to cover the spill, which was first reported time on November 6.

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

Tracy Ryan, who homeschools her two young children about three miles away, said the air smells of sulfur and the noise is so bad she’s had trouble sleeping.

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

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

Methane’s global warming power is about 83 times stronger over 20 years than carbon dioxide from car exhausts and power plant smokestacks. Oil and gas companies are the leading industrial emitters of methane, which, once released into the atmosphere, will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, fires and floods.

The new leak comes as the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 11 updated proposed new rules 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 said Thursday that the leak had been 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 leaking per day is preliminary and the company will not be able to provide an accurate tally of lost gas until a reserve verification study is completed.

The original estimate would potentially put the Rager spill at less than but comparable to the daily emissions from the worst uncontrolled gas leaks in U.S. history — a 2018 explosion at an Ohio gas well owned by an ExxonMobil subsidiary and the 2015 disaster at Aliso Canyon storage facility in California.

Citations issued against the company by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection include failures to properly maintain and operate the gas facility, creating a public nuisance and creating a “hazard to public health and safety.” The company was also cited for failing to provide government inspectors with “free and unrestricted access.”

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

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

The gas comes from a vent designed to relieve the intense pressures that build up in the well and prevent a blowout. Cox said the company is now withdrawing gas from four storage wells to reduce overall pressure on the field. Efforts to plug the leak were expected to continue through the weekend, including efforts to plug the well with concrete.

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

Edana Glessner, who runs a wedding venue 3.6 miles from the well site, said the smell made her nauseous and affected her business.

“You could hear it at the last wedding we had,” he said. “And it smelled, but everyone was okay with that. We said we were really sorry.”

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Biesecker reported from Washington and Rubinkam from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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