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Cambria County Gas Leak Could Bring New Regulations for Underground Gas Storage

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) ongoing investigation of a major gas leak in Cambria County could catalyze tightened regulations for natural gas storage wells. On Nov. 6, the DEP was made aware of an emergency situation regarding Equitrans’ George L. Reade 1 storage well at the Rager Mountain Gas Storage Reservoir in Cambria County, which was leaking a large amount of gas. Fifteen days later, contractors were finally able to temporarily plug the storage well, and plugged the well permanently the following day. The DEP opened an investigation upon arrival at the storage field and remained on site until the well was plugged. The DEP also found “numerous violations” and “integrity issues” with more wells in the Rager Mountain facility, and has since issued three orders to Equitrans in response to the violations. In those 15 days, the DEP estimates that the well emitted 100 million cubic feet (mcf) daily, totaling 1.29 billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas, primarily methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) approximately 80 times more powerful at heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. The leak will be one of the largest to ever occur in the United States. There are currently 48 active natural gas storage fields with approximately 1,800 individual wells located in the Commonwealth. These storage wells are often repurposed former gas extraction wells but work in the opposite way. Depleted gas well sites are regularly used for storage, as the empty subsurface geologic formations are suitable to hold injected gas. That stored gas serves as a reserve to meet the varying needs of gas utility companies. However, as development has occurred over the course of a century, there are many sites in the state that do not comply with the most current regulations, and thus pose greater potential risks. In the Dec. 8 order, the DEP states that “Equitrans has failed to properly maintain and operate the wells, and its continuing failure to minimize the potential for well control emergencies constitutes an ongoing threat to the environment and to human health and safety”. Across all three orders, Equitrans is mandated to halt further gas injections into the storage field, perform several actions related to well integrity and monitoring including an audit by a third party, and develop a plan to recondition or plug other wells on the site that do not meet current regulations. Additionally, the DEP ordered the operator to develop a remediation plan with an environmental consultant, cease “earth disturbance activities”, and submit an erosion and sedimentation control plan. Acting deputy secretary for oil and gas management at the DEP, Kurt Klapkowski, stated in an Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board meeting that the department will be conducting a “top to bottom review” of the Commonwealth’s gas storages, which he believes will lead to “significant changes to regulations”.

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