An oil and gas drilling pad where a fiery explosion led to the evacuation of about 100 people in Ohio's Belmont County last month was still spewing raw methane into the atmosphere nearly three weeks after the initial well blowout, according to an infrared video released by environmental watchdog group Earthworks on Tuesday. Workers reportedly brought the well under control Wednesday morning.
While much of the national media has yet to take notice, Earthworks is comparing the accident in Belmont County to the 2015 natural gas disaster in California's Aliso Canyon, where a storage well blowout allowed more than 100,000 tons of methane pollution to spew into the atmosphere near Los Angeles over a four-month period. The disaster brought national attention to the climate impacts of methane, a natural gas that can cause 86 times more climate damage than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
On February 15, well operators with XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, lost control of the Belmont County natural gas well while servicing a fracked well at the same site, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local reports. Fires broke out and explosions occurred, spewing thousands of gallons of drilling fluids containing toxic chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and 2-butoxyethanol into the air and a tributary of a nearby stream.
XTO workers were able to gain control of the well and stop the leak on Wednesday morning, according to a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). In all, the wellhead leaked for about 21 days after the initial blowout.
XTO estimated that the damaged wellhead was leaking methane gas at a rate of 100 million cubic feet per day, according to the EPA's initial emergency response report. The Aliso Canyon leak emitted an average of 49 million cubic feet of gas per day, or about half as much for a longer period of time, according to Earthworks. This infrared video taken by optical gas photographer Peter Dronkers on Saturday shows that raw methane was still billowing from the XTO Energy well in Belmont Country at an alarming rate weeks after the accident:
"With the age of this particular well pad, it was not covered by a variety of public safeguards more modern well pads must follow because it was grandfathered in under current laws," said Melanie Houston, director of climate programs at the Ohio Environmental Council, in a statement released after the accident. "In this incident, gas back-flowed and caused it to break the blowout preventer, similar to what happened in the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, but at a smaller scale."
About 100 people from 30 homes in a one-mile radius of the well pad were mandatorily evacuated. A few residents were still under evacuation orders on Wednesday morning, but the orders were in the process of being lifted, according to ODNR. Bad weather has apparently made it difficult for XTO workers to remove heavy machinery in their way and access the well to stop the leak, according to local reports.
A spokeswoman for XTO Energy in Ohio has not responded to Truthout's request for additional information.
The blowout in Belmont County, which experienced an oil and gas boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" about a half decade ago, comes as the Trump administration works to promote fossil fuel production and roll back Obama-era pollution controls. Regulations targeted by the administration include limits on methane pollution, which the EPA considers to be a climate-threatening greenhouse gas.
So far, courts have blocked Trump administration efforts to roll back rules at the EPA and Interior Department designed to control methane leaks and emissions in the oil and gas industry, and the rules remain in effect today. Trump appointees are still directing their agencies to find ways to roll back the rules, a process that could take months. Environmentalists are expected to file a fresh round of lawsuits against the proposals to roll back the methane rules.
These regulations are designed to curb methane emissions into the atmosphere, including on public land, where private oil and gas companies have a wasteful habit of releasing raw natural gas into the atmosphere instead of collecting it and paying royalties back to taxpayers. Methane commonly leaks from pipelines, processing plants and other oil and gas infrastructure, and some operators vent extra methane from oil and gas wells directly into the air to save money, a practice known as "flaring."
However, the Obama-era methane rules are not designed to prevent accidents like the blowout in Belmont County or the disaster in Aliso Canyon, according to Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel.
"Even if we have the best regulations that can reasonably be asked for, they likely would not stop this type of disaster, and that is not a risk that we should be willing to accept," Pagel told Truthout in an interview.
Pagel said accidents like well blowouts and large oil and gas leaks are typically the result of a confluence of factors, including plain old bad luck. They also become more common as the oil and gas industry expands. As Truthout reported this week, the United States is poised to become the world's top oil and gas producer in the coming years if current consumption and production trends continue, increasing the likelihood of such disasters.
Pagel suggested that large methane releases like the disaster in Aliso Canyon and the ongoing leak in Belmont Country raise serious questions about relying on fossil fuels for energy rather than turning to cleaner, renewable alternatives.
"We don't have the luxury of blowing out a bunch of wells across the world and releasing a lot of methane on a regular basis, either from leaks or disaster," Pagel said. "We don't have that luxury because of climate change."