Electric cars in the U.S. had a banner year in 2021, doubling the number sold from the year before.
But in early November 2022, an unrelated, largely invisible disaster threatened to erase a a huge chunk of emissions savings from switching to EVs.
For almost two weeks, methane from a natural gas storage site in rural Pennsylvania, Rager Mountain, leaked into the air. By time the leak was capped, more than a billion cubic feet of gas had escaped.
Methane, as I’ve mentioned before, is a powerful greenhouse gas, even more so than carbon dioxide over a shorter time scale. It’s also the majority component of natural gas. When gas is used for heating, cooking and electricity production, it produces greenhouse gas emissions. But full-on leaks directly into the atmosphere is far worse: Bloomberg News estimates the November leak at Rager Mountain “effectively erased emissions gains from about half of the 656,000 electric vehicles sold in the US last year.”
The Rager Mountain leak is about a quarter of the size of the worst methane gas leak in U.S. history, Aliso Canyon. Once called “The Invisible Catastrophe,” Aliso Canyon leaked for more than 100 days, and because it was much closer to a large population center - Los Angeles - forced the long-term evacuation of thousands of residents.
The company that owns the Rager Mountain storage center, Equitrans, is not a household name the same way Aliso Canyon’s owner, utility company Southern California Gas is. But it is the one of the largest gas infrastructure companies, and it operates primarily in the vast gas deposits of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
After the leak was capped, Pennsylvania environmental regulators ordered the company to stop adding more gas to the storage wells when they found all but one of the wells on site still had measurable (but much smaller) leaks of methane.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) accused Equitrans of failing to “properly maintain and operate the wells” and criticized their readiness to respond quickly to the uncontrolled leak. DEP has subpoenaed Equitrans for documents as part of their investigation, and but as of mid-December, hadn’t received everything from them.
Anya Litvak from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that regulators knew a leak at Rager Mountain was a possibility, and that there are other gas storage sites in the state at higher-risk of leaking dangerous amounts of methane:
For years, Pennsylvania regulators have been concerned that if something like the massive gas leak that raged in Cambria County last month occurred in a more urban area, the consequences would be devastating.
The Keystone State is second only to Michigan in the number of gas storage fields it hosts — large, underground reservoirs that hold and dispense gas used to heat homes and cook food…
In the years following the famous Aliso Canyon leak, the Pennsylvania agency worked to inventory all of the storage wells in the state and assigned them a relative risk ranking that inspectors could use to inform their oversight. The troubled Equitrans well had been rated in the top 20%. …
Still, out of the 349 highest risk wells identified by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2020, George L. Reade 1 was ranked 284. That might mean a lot more scrutiny is headed for the wells that rank higher.
One reason: The head of the division investigating the Rager Mountain leak tells Liptak there was now be a “top-to-bottom” review of the Pennsylvania gas storage industry on the table. What that means in practice, beyond increased scrutiny of Equitrans’ other storage sites, remains to be seen.
Looking at greenhouse gas emissions over the past few years has been a frustrating see-saw: there’s obvious progress in some areas, while other emissions sources plateau or single events like this leak add truly avoidable warming into the atmosphere.
Beginning in 2024, as part of the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S will tax companies for methane leaks, starting at $900 a metric ton of methane (for reference, Aliso Canyon leaked 109,000 metric tons). A leak the size of Rager Canyon would end up costing millions of dollars, but avoiding a similar size leak would be far more preferable.