What a catastrophic gas leak in Pennsylvania means for our climate and our health

Image credit: Methane plume from the leak detected by the Sentinel-2 satellite on November 9 (Data processed by UNEP/IMEO)

By Adam Peltz and Jon Goldstein

A massive gas leak has occurred at a natural gas storage facility in western Pennsylvania, impacting both the climate and communities living in Cambria County.

The leak began Thursday, November 6th, at a facility operated by Equitrans Midstream Corporation. Despite the best efforts of the company and state officials, it continues for weeks, causing over 1 billion cubic feet of methane and other pollutants to fill the air. Its impact is massive – large enough to be seen and quantified from space using the growing network of methane satellites. The short-term warming generated by this single location over the course of a few weeks is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 360,000 cars over a year.

It’s also an incredible waste of energy. The gas lost through this one leak could have reached the year number natural gas Usage requirement of 15,000 houses and is worth $6.5 million.

The gas leak is one of the largest we have seen in the US since Aliso Canyon disaster in 2015. This month-long disaster prompted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to issue national standards for underground natural gas storage facilities. These standards followed the guidelines of the American Petroleum Institute – and went into effect essentially unchanged with little transparency. And now history has repeated itself. The fact that these problems occur at this scale every few years shows that we need to do better to manage these massive climate and security threats.

So what’s the deal with that?

The rules proposed by the PHMSA have significant shortcomings. There were no standards for measuring risk or quantifying risk mitigation. There were no specific requirements to assess and eliminate single points of failure. Details on well control planning were sparse. And there were few details on emergency preparedness, safety, site security and other elements. In the face of another gas storage disaster, it’s clear that these issues need to be addressed through comprehensive regulation, not just industry policy (although improved policy with EDF contributions is expected next year). And in addition to stricter rules, the PHMSA — a small federal agency with important responsibilities — needs to step up enforcement and inspections to make sure the industry is doing its job.

While an overhaul of rules governing underground natural gas storage and well integrity monitoring is needed to prevent disasters of this type, a new set of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oil and gas standards will help further address the oil and gas industry’s methane pollution problem to decrease wide. Recently proposed updates to state methane regulations would require oil and gas companies to regularly inspect facilities for leaks or problems at upstream and midstream facilities, including in the storage segment like this one in Pennsylvania. A newly introduced methane fee in the Inflation Reduction Act will also give operators a strong economic incentive to allow problems in their plants.

Gov. Wolf and Gov.-elect Shapiro have both advocated stricter standards on oil and gas methane emissions, not only because of the impact of those emissions on the climate, but also because of their importance to the state’s air quality. Methane is released along with a variety of other pollutants linked to cancer, respiratory diseases and smog formation.

Unfortunately, just recentlyPennsylvania The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalf, voted to put efforts to prevent this pollution on hold.

The ongoing disaster in Cambria County underscores that we need more protection from pollution in the oil and gas industry, not less. Pennsylvania legislators and federal agencies need to up their game and pass standards that can protect the climate, stop waste and save lives.