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A blowout turned an Ohio natural gas well into a methane ‘super-emitter’

A blowout turned an Ohio natural gas well into a methane ‘super-emitter’
Using satellite data, scientists have confirmed that a 2018 blowout turned a natural gas well in eastern Ohio into a “super-emitter,” leaking more methane in 20 days than all but three European nations emit over an entire year.

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escaped from the well at a rate twice as fast as the Aliso Canyon leak in California in 2015, a four-month incident that became the nation’s largest accidental release of methane, according to the group of 15 scientists.

The blowout in rural Ohio took place Feb. 15, 2018, at a well owned by XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, and it took 20 days to get it under control. The well had been “fracked,” or hydraulically fractured, before the blowout took place. Workers had been completing the well, according to news reports at the time, a job made more difficult by heavy rains and a crane that collapsed when the explosion took place.

“We deeply regret this incident occurred and are committed to identifying and managing risks associated with our activities to prevent recurrence,” Julie L. King, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said in an email.

The new report gauges that the mishap spewed 60 kilotons of methane into the atmosphere — five times the amount ExxonMobil estimated.

“We are eager to learn more about their study,” King said. “ExxonMobil is working with government laboratories, universities, NGOs and other industry participants to identify the most cost-effective and best-performing technology, including satellites, that can be adopted by all producers to detect, repair and accurately measure methane.”

It is the first time methane from an oil or gas incident has been both detected and quantified via satellite during a routine global survey.

Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the report, noted the unique aspect of the data gathering. “Methane emissions are a huge contributor to climate change, he said. “But source locations are often unpredictable and can occur in out-of-the-way places all over the globe. New results show the opportunity for satellites to help see and quantify emissions no matter where they are.”

EDF, which will launch its own satellite in 2022, estimates that emissions from the oil and gas sector are 60 percent higher than estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The accident highlighted the expanded use of natural gas in the United States, thanks to the sharp increase in fracking and to opposition to coal-fired power. Natural gas emits only half the greenhouse gas as coal at the point of combustion.

But leaks of methane throughout the production system can undercut the advantage of natural gas and can drive emissions back up to dangerous levels.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, up to 25 times as potent, pound for pound, as carbon dioxide, according to EPA estimates.

Major oil companies have said that they are improving their ability to capture methane and seal leaks, yet many environmental groups say difficult-to-detect leaks — from the wellhead to the processing plant to the distribution pipes — continue to offset the advantages of natural gas.

The blowout in Ohio was measured by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument, a satellite that at the time was doing a routine global survey of methane emissions, scientists said in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The satellite was able to observe the well on the 13th day of the blowout, and it calculated the changes in well pressure and the speed of emissions.

“To combat climate change and build a low-carbon economy, being able to accurately monitor greenhouse gas emissions is an essential prerequisite,” the study said. Its authors said that the study shows how methane emissions “from large gas leakages due to accidents in the oil and gas sector can escape the greenhouse gas emission accounting system, adding a significant source of uncertainty to the annual estimates reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

“Satellite-based instruments that regularly scan the entire globe provide a means to detect and quantify methane emissions, which are challenging to measure,” said the article, whose lead author was Sudhanshu Pandey of the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

The group said its paper “highlights the importance of accidental emissions for regional and national-scale emission reporting and inventories, as the lack of incorporating such emissions can lead to significant underestimation of overall emissions.”

Since the blowout, dozens of permits have been issued for oil and gas facilities in Belmont County where the well was located, according to the nonprofit group Earthworks.

“This study validates what Earthworks has seen and been saying for years, that oil and gas methane pollution is higher than regulators and operators are reporting to the public,” said Leann Leiter, Earthworks’ Pennsylvania and Ohio field advocate. “The solution is for stronger standards that put the responsibility on companies to prove actual decreases in emissions and, ultimately, to stop issuing new production and infrastructure permits that result in increasing pollution, and to instead protect both people and the climate.”

 (Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images)

(Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images)

Source: Washington Post

By:  Steven Mufson

Steven Mufson
Reporter covering the business of climate change

Dec. 16, 2019 at 3:00 p.m. EST

LINK:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/a-blowout-turned-an-ohio-gas-well-into-a-methane-super-emitter/2019/12/16/fcbdf622-1f9e-11ea-bed5-880264cc91a9_story.html

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Enormous Methane Leak From Ohio Gas Well Was One of Worst in American History, Satellites Reveal

In February and March 2018, a gas well blowout in Belmont County, Ohio leaked methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. Now, analysis of satellite data has revealed that the relatively little-known leak was one of the most significant ever to occur in the country.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists estimated that the gas well—owned by ExxonMobil—leaked around 120 metric tons of methane per hour over a period of 20 days before the company managed to fix the problem. This amounted to a total of more than 50,000 tons of methane.

The authors—led by Sudhanshu Pandey from SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research—said that the hourly emission rate from the leak was about twice that of the widely reported event at an oil and gas storage facility in Alison Canyon, California, which took place in 2015—the largest known methane leak in the country.

While the emission rate of the Ohio event was higher, the California event lasted longer and produced more emissions overall, The New York Times reported. Nevertheless, the leak at the Belmont County well still released vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere, according to the researchers. In fact, it emitted more of the gas in 20 days than the oil and gas industries of some European nations do in a year.

“Assuming the detected emission represents the average rate for the 20-day blowout period, we find the total methane emission from the well blowout is comparable to one-quarter of the entire state of Ohio’s reported annual oil and natural gas methane emission, or, alternatively, a substantial fraction of the annual anthropogenic methane emissions from several European countries,” the authors wrote in the study.

The scientists detected the leak using an instrument known as TROPOMI on the recently launched European Space Agency satellite Copernicus Sentinel-5P, which is designed to continuously monitor methane and other pollutants.

“Methane emissions due to accidents in the oil and natural gas sector are very challenging to monitor, and hence are seldom considered in emission inventories and reporting,” the authors wrote in the paper. “One of the main reasons is the lack of measurements during such events. Our work demonstrates the strength and effectiveness of routine satellite measurements in detecting and quantifying greenhouse gas emission from unpredictable events.”

These satellite measurements could have significant implications given that emissions from the fossil fuel industry are one of the major sources of atmospheric methane. Gas leakages such as these can release large amounts of the gas in relatively short periods of time.

Although carbon dioxide is much abundant in the atmosphere and thus is more commonly associated with global warming, methane is around 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. In addition to the fossil fuel industry, the main sources of methane pollution are landfill sites, livestock farming, rice agriculture and wetlands.

methane leak

methane leak
Data from the Copernicus Sentinel satellite methane measurements. Copernicus Sentinel data, processed by SRON

“The current warming that we are experiencing, one-quarter of it is caused by anthropogenic methane—the additional methane caused by human activity,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the study, told CNN.

The Ohio incident did not garner much attention at the time, although 100 residents within a 100-mile radius had to be evacuated from their homes while workers attempted to fix the leak. Some of these residents had complained of health issues such as throat irritation, dizziness and breathing problems, Miranda Leppla, head of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, told the Times.

Exxon spokesman, Casey Norton, told the Times that the company’s own scientists had analyzed the emissions from the leak and come to a smaller estimate than the one in the latest paper. He said the company was in contact with the researchers to discuss the “discrepancy and see if there’s anything we can learn.”

“This was an anomaly,” he said. “This is not something that happens on any regular basis. And we do our very best to prevent this from ever happening.”

In a statement provided to CNN, the company said that it deeply regretted the incident and had “instituted systematic well-design and monitoring procedures to prevent it from happening again.”

Newsweek has contacted ExxonMobil for comment on the findings of the study.

LINK:  https://www.newsweek.com/ohio-gas-well-methane-leak-worst-ever-space-observations-1477992

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from Resilience:

This So-Called Bridge Fuel ‘Leads to Hell’: Blowout at ExxonMobil Fracking Site Among Nation’s Worst-Ever Methane Leaks

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