A massive gas leak can happen anytime.
Last month brought a prominent reminder of that reality at a gas well belonging to the lead developer of the Mountain Valley Pipeline crossing 11 counties in West Virginia.
A well at Equitrans Midstream Corp.’s Rager Mountain gas storage field in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, leaked what was estimated to be 100 million standard cubic feet of gas per day for roughly two weeks. The leak ended after a specialty well services company flooded the well to stop the gas flow and plugged the well.
Equitrans spokeswoman Natalie Cox said Wednesday the company is still working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to determine how much gas was lost and what caused the incident in addition to an environmental assessment in and around the facility.
To compare, a leak of an estimated 4.6 billion cubic feet of gas spanning from October 2015 to February 2016 at Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility in California often has been cited as the largest gas leak in U.S. history.
The Pennsylvania DEP issued four notices of violation to Equitrans L.P., an Equitrans Midstream subsidiary, including for venting gas into the atmosphere that was a “hazard to the public health and safety,” and “failing to ensure that health, safety, environment and property are protected.”
Methane is typically released alongside other air pollutants that can cause cancer, asthma, premature birth and other devastating health outcomes.
Methane traps at least 80 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, accelerating climate change that is driving an increase in major floods and power outages — to which West Virginia is especially prone.
Five days into the Rager Mountain leak, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal building on a previous plan to cut emissions of methane and other air pollutants from oil and gas operations.
The EPA’s new supplemental proposal includes more sweeping requirements to lower air pollution, expanding on a November 2021 proposal that would require states to slash methane emissions from hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas sources nationwide for the first time.
The agency says the more stringent standards would reduce harmful emissions and energy waste from covered sources by 87% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Updated elements of the proposal would require documentation that well sites are properly closed and plugged before monitoring is allowed to end; require operators to respond to credible third-party reports of high-volume methane leaks; and remove exemptions from routine monitoring for well sites with lower emissions.
Heightening the importance of methane emissions reduction in West Virginia is the state’s high concentration of low-production wells — a category of wells responsible for some of the highest concentrations of methane pollution.
An April report in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications found that roughly half of all well site methane emissions nationwide come from low-production well sites.
The study from researchers at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund found that low-production wells emit six to 12 times as much methane as the average rate for all U.S. well sites.
Wells that produce less than 15 barrels of oil equivalent per day comprised 94% of reported wells in West Virginia in 2020, according to federal Energy Information Administration data — much higher than the 77% clip nationwide.
In a 2018 study of West Virginia well sites, Princeton and McGill university researchers found the EPA underestimated methane emissions projections from conventional active wells by 7.5 times.
But the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection protested vociferously against the EPA’s November 2021 proposal, arguing in a nine-page comment filed in January that it would be too expensive for the agency to implement and could force small local oil and gas businesses to shutter.
Submitting a separate comment in January, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey led a letter signed by 23 state attorneys general arguing the proposal “imposes unnecessary and costly burdens on an industry that is already controlling its emissions.” The attorneys general said the proposal “shows insufficient regard” for state gas industry regulations.
Now, the EPA is inviting comment on its new supplemental proposal, intending to issue a final rule in 2023. The agency has estimated that its November 2021 and November 2022 proposals would slash an estimated 36 million tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035 — nearly equivalent to all greenhouse gases emitted from coal-fired electricity generated nationwide in 2020.
“If finalized, these rule changes could significantly reduce harmful pollution and methane leakage from new and existing oil and gas wells in West Virginia,” Ted Boettner, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a clean energy-advocating nonprofit think tank based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, said in an email.
But the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s reservations from the last rule proposal persist.
DEP spokesman Terry Fletcher said in an email Friday that the agency has concerns about its ability to “fully implement” that proposal due to a lack of resources and is reviewing the new proposals.
The Legislature has resisted calls from environmental advocates, concerned landowners and the DEP itself to restore the agency’s oil and gas regulatory unit at least to the staffing levels it had before budget cuts that were implemented two years ago. The DEP reduced the size of the Office of Oil and Gas from about 45 to 25 staff members in 2020 over a lack of funding stemming from a decrease in permit fee revenue.
“We look forward to working with our federal partners to find ways to address these concerns,” Fletcher said.
Health risk, DEP pushback
West Virginia was the nation’s fourth-largest consumer-grade natural gas producer in 2021, according to Energy Information Administration data.
Oil production in West Virginia more than doubled from 2017 to 2021, per the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia. The state ranked 12th nationally in crude oil production last year.
West Virginia’s elevated gas and oil production is fueling toxic air pollution from the industry and the cancer risks that come with it.
The state’s gas and oil industry-linked cancer risks are among the highest in the country, according to a recent analysis of EPA data by Clean Air Task Force, an environmental nonprofit.
Of the 30 counties nationwide with a cancer risk due to gas and oil pollution above 1 in 250,000, four were in West Virginia: Doddridge, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel.
Doddridge was one of only three counties in the U.S. with a cancer risk above in 1 in 100,000. A lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 100,000 means that for 100,000 people continuously exposed to a certain level of a pollutant over 70 years, one person may develop cancer. Such hazardous air pollutants as benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde drive cancer risk from oil and gas facilities.
Boettner predicts the EPA’s newly proposed rule would ensure that West Virginia’s thousands of unplugged abandoned wells are inspected with company plans in place to close them rather than leaking large amounts of methane.
“The rule is a win-win for industry and for everyone living around oil and gas wells,” Boettner said.
But West Virginia’s gas and oil industry didn’t see the EPA’s November 2021 rule proposal as a win, signing on to a letter to the EPA in January that argued the proposal would impose an undue burden on low-production wells.
The Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia was one of 21 industry groups to sign the letter suggesting that homeowners and farmers served by wells on their property could suffer from small local oil and gas companies not affording to comply with the proposal’s regulations.
The EPA estimates its new proposal would increase recovery of enough gas that would otherwise go to waste from 2023 to 2035 to heat an estimated 3.5 million homes for the winter.
Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia executive director Charlie Burd said last month that the group was still reviewing details of the EPA’s new proposal.
“EPA’s approach should be workable and technologically achievable, particularly for smaller and family-owned producers, and we look forward to engaging regulators on striking this balance,” Burd said in an email.
The industry groups’ letter to the EPA cited the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s previous comment criticizing the proposal as unfeasible.
That comment from Laura Crowder, director of the agency’s Division of Air Quality, estimated that the cost for the state to implement the rule would exceed $278 million annually under a two-year compliance schedule, roughly 28 times the division’s budget. Crowder cited expected permitting actions, compliance efforts and “other planning related activities.”
Environmental regulators in other Republican-controlled oil and gas-producing states such as Alaska and Oklahoma voiced similar objections, contending the proposal would be harmful to industry and difficult to implement.
But then-Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell, who served under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf before resigning in July, submitted a response supporting the EPA’s proposal in January.
Changes since last year
The EPA’s supplemental proposal includes a newly planned Super-Emitter Response Program to quickly identify large leaks known as “super emitters” for mitigation. The program would use expertise and data from regulatory agencies or EPA-approved, qualified third parties with access to EPA-approved remote methane detection technology.
Under the program, EPA-approved entities that properly document a super emitter “event” would notify owners and operators and provide them data about the event. The owners and operators would be required to determine the cause of the event and correct it if needed. The EPA would post the complete notices, including data about the event, and the owner or operator’s response, on a public website for transparency.
The EPA is proposing to require monitoring at all well sites to continue for the life of the site, until wells are properly plugged, and a final monitoring survey using optical gas imaging shows there are no emissions.
Well site owners and operators also would be required to submit a well closure plan that includes the necessary steps to close the wells, including plugging all wells, documenting financial assurance to complete the well closure, and scheduling for finishing closure activities. They also would have to submit annual reports documenting ownership.
Peter Zalzal, associate vice president for clean air strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the EPA’s supplemental proposal will “deliver enormous climate and public health benefits for millions of people across the country,” looking forward to it ensuring regular inspections at high-polluting, lower-producing wells.
“The proposal relies on modern, proven technologies and best practices, including zero-emitting solutions,” Zalzal said in a statement.
But the federal Clean Air Act allows states to use a less stringent standard for a certain existing emissions source based on the source’s remaining useful life and other factors.
So the EPA is proposing to let states apply a less stringent standard to a particular existing source or class of existing sources if they can demonstrate that the cost of control is unreasonable, that it’s impossible to install necessary emissions controls, or that factors specific to the facility are fundamentally different than factors considered by the EPA.
Influx of jobs predicted
Three days after the EPA’s supplemental proposal release last month, a West Virginia University researcher gave an interim legislative session meeting presentation to state lawmakers that showed stagnant gas industry employment in West Virginia over time.
The presentation from John Deskins of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics showed that employment from natural gas production in West Virginia has steadied around 5,000 since early 2020.
“We don’t see hardly any response in employment to the price volatility that we’ve seen this year,” Deskins told the Joint Natural Gas Development Committee.
Even during the past decade’s gas drilling boom, employment never reached 10,000 and has stayed below 8,000 since 2015, per Deskins’ presentation.
The Ohio River Valley Institute released an analysis last year finding that a rise in natural gas production from 2008 to 2019 did little to lift up the economies in 22 gas drilling-heavy counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Jobs increased in those counties by just 1.6% from 2008 to 2019, 2.3 percentage points behind all West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania counties and 8.3 percentage points below the national average, the report noted.
Proponents of the EPA’s planned crackdown on methane emissions say it would yield more jobs for the region.
A Clean Air Task Force report published in September estimated the EPA’s November 2021 methane proposal would create 92,000 jobs nationwide.
“By taking better care of the state’s wells, and by replacing outdated equipment, it will create thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry and improve our health and environment,” Boettner said of the EPA’s proposed rule changes.
As West Virginia’s DEP reviews the EPA’s new methane proposal while still harboring concerns over the last one, Pennsylvania’s DEP is still investigating Equitrans’ well leak in Cambria County, agency spokeswoman Lauren Camarda said Wednesday.
And unlike its neighbor DEP to the southwest, the Pennsylvania DEP “remains supportive” of the EPA’s methane plan, agency spokesman Jamar Thrasher added in an email Wednesday.
The EPA has given the public until Feb. 13 to submit comments in writing. The agency said it prefers comments be submitted online through its Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.
Comments also may be emailed to email@example.com, with Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR- 2021-0317 in the subject line of the message. Comments may be mailed to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Docket Center, Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2021-0317, Mail Code 28221T, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20460.
The agency will hold a virtual public hearing on the proposal Jan. 10 and 11.