Prove your humanity

A massive leak at a natural gas storage site in Cambria County was capped on November 19, but the incident raises questions. The Rager Mountain storage site is located in Jackson Township, north of Johnstown. Its owner, Equitrans Midstream, says it’s investigating what caused the leak, first reported on November 6th. 

The company reported “a preliminary, conservative estimate” that the well was losing 100 million cubic feet a day.  Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a highly potent greenhouse gas, 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over short time periods. 

The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier has reported on the gas leak and spoke with host Kara Holsopple about it.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: First, what type of gas is stored at the site and why? 

Reid Frazier: This is the natural gas that you and I would use in our homes for home heating and home cooking. There are about 48 of these sites around Pennsylvania, mostly in the western part of the state, where most of the gas comes from. 

This site contains 9 billion cubic feet of gas storage. The average home that uses natural gas uses something like 168 cubic feet a day. So that’s a lot of cubic feet of gas that it holds in what are old oil and gas wells that have been depleted over the years. After all the gas was taken out, [old oil and gas wells] have been converted into storage sites where you just pump gas down until you need it, like during the winter to heat homes or during the summer to power electric plants for air conditioning. 

Kara Holsopple: How much gas was released during this episode, and why is it so bad for the climate? 

Frazier: Equitrans Midstream estimated that they could have leaked as much as 100 million cubic feet a day during this 11-day episode, give or take. Gas is really bad for the climate when you let it leak out like this because it’s mostly methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. 

Over 100 years, methane is about 25 times worse than CO2 – the main greenhouse gas that we worry about – at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Over a 20-year period, it’s something like 80 times more potent than CO2.

Over the next couple of decades, scientists are really worried that we are rapidly coming to a precipice in climate change where you could set off a lot of these really bad feedback loops. The earth gets too warm, and then it starts to release more greenhouse gases. So that short time frame is a really big concern with this gas.

Kara Holsopple: How did the leak impact people living in the area? Is this a remote site? 

Frazier: This site is at the top of Laurel Ridge, and it’s very woodsy and remote. But there are homes within a mile of it. No one was evacuated. However, people did report hearing a loud hiss, almost like a jet engine. Some people thought that there was an airplane flying overhead initially when it first started happening. 

And [people reported] the smell of gas, that natural gas smell when there’s a gas leak on the street or something like that. Some people did report having headaches from it. So there were definitely impacts to the local community. 

Kara Holsopple: Is it dangerous? 

Frazier: It never posed a public safety threat. The air wouldn’t explode because the gas quickly gets dissipated. However, the DEP did impose a no-fly zone within a mile of the site as a precaution. 

Holsopple: How does this look compared to leaks at other gas storage facilities in recent years?

Frazier: The biggest gas leak in U.S. history occurred at Aliso Canyon in 2015 and 2016, in Southern California, near Los Angeles. That was another gas storage facility. It leaked for 40 days, but interestingly, the reported numbers for the gas leak at Rager Mountain were double that of Aliso Canyon, although it didn’t go on nearly as long as the Aliso Canyon leak. 

There was a big gas leak in Belmont County, Ohio, in 2018 at a natural gas well – a fracking well. That leaked at about the same rate but for about twice as long as this one. So it’s one of the larger methane leaks in recent years. But we don’t have a final exact number of cubic feet lost from the company yet. 

Holsopple: What does the state’s Department of Environmental Protection say about this leak? 

Frazier: The DEP is currently investigating the incident, and as part of its investigation, it’s requested information and reports from the company to go over what happened.

Holsopple: What kinds of permits do these sites need, and what rules do they need to follow? 

Frazier: These facilities are regulated by both state and federal regulations. There’s an agency called the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which oversees interstate pipelines and natural gas storage facilities. They are part of the investigation. 

DEP has its own state clean air regulations that it follows. I mean, it’s definitely against the regulations to let a bunch of gas leak out of your gas well. But as far as what kind of penalties the company faces, we’re not really sure yet. 

Holsopple: What happens now that the leak has been stopped? What does the company say? 

Frazier: The company says it’s going to do what’s called a root cause investigation, which is what it sounds like, and just try to figure out what happened. It says it’s coordinating its efforts with state and federal regulators and trying to accurately inventory how much gas it lost. At the same time, it’s also trying to shore up the well to make sure the leaking has stopped for good, and it will follow up, presumably, with the federal and state agencies. 

What I’m most interested in from this follow-up investigation is that the DEP has done routine inspections of the site over the years. The last one was only something like ten days before the actual leak began. So it begs the question, if the DEP was just there and said everything was copacetic, how does the site go from everything being fine to leaking a whole bunch of gas within ten days? Did something happen to change it? What could be done to stop leaks like this in the future? 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.