An explosion at a well pad in 2018 in Belmont County in eastern Ohio led to 20 days of raging fire from uncontrolled gas spewing from the earth. A satellite launched by the European Space Agency was able to detect and measure the methane emissions. It turns out 60,000 tons of methane were released — more than some countries emit in a calendar year.
For 20 days after workers lost control of a horizontal gas well in Belmont County, a raging fire released harmful methane emissions into the air around the eastern Ohio community.
State records also show that during the February 2018 incident, fluid from the ExxonMobil-owned Schnegg well entered a tributary of Captina Creek, and residents as far as a mile away were evacuated.
It was unknown how much natural gas was released.
However, a team of Dutch and American scientists was able to detect the blowout using an orbiting satellite to measure methane.
It turns out there were 120 tons of methane released per hour. Overall, the blowout released an estimated 60,000 tons of methane, according to the researchers.
That’s more methane than some countries release in a year.
“In fact, annual oil and gas emissions from only three of the European Union’s 15 countries, plus Switzerland and Norway, are estimated to be higher than that of the blowout,” said Steven Hamburg, a chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Hamburg was one of several scientists who published the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The emissions in Belmont County were twice the peak emission rate of the Aliso Canyon event in California in 2015 — one of the worst natural gas leaks in the country.
The methane emissions from the Belmont County blowout were a quarter of the reported annual methane emissions from the oil and gas sector for the entire state of Ohio.
Methane is often described as a greenhouse gas and is considered a significant contributor to climate change. When there’s a leak, it absorbs the sun's heat 80 times more readily than carbon dioxide and contributes to warming the atmosphere. Ohio’s temperatures, which are already warming, are expected to continue to rise by 4 to 6 degrees by mid-century if emissions aren’t lowered.
“We very much regret the incident occurred and have instituted systematic well design and monitoring procedures to prevent it from happening again,” Julie King, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said in an email to The Dispatch.
When asked about the amount of methane released from the incident, King said: “We are eager to learn more, and our scientists are currently reviewing the study. ExxonMobil is committed to methane reductions and is working with government laboratories, universities and others to identify the most cost effective and best performing technology, including satellites, that can be adopted by all producers to detect, repair and accurately measure methane.”
The instrument that detected the leak, the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument, launched by the European Space Agency, is outfitted with a spectrometer.
“So it's looking at the wavelengths, very specific wavelengths, of reflective light off the surface of the Earth. It gives you a signal of the methane in the air between the satellite and the ground,” Hamburg said. “You can then look at how that varies over geography so you can calculate where there is an enhancement — where the level is higher.”
Once that pattern is discovered, scientists can use what’s called an inversion “to take that pattern of concentrations, and calculate, basically run the movie in reverse. What was the source point? And how much? That allows you to quantify,” he said.
The technology shows the potential to track and hold companies, regulatory agencies and governments responsible for reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations that are invisible to the naked eye.
Jill Hunkler, an environmental activist who lives in Belmont County, remembers the blowout. She said the sky turned a red, pulsing shade. The tall plume of smoke continued to fill the sky.
“You can just see it pouring out and filling up the whole valley. ... And that went on for 20 days,” she said.
State records show that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which tracks leaks and spills from the oil and gas industry, listed the amount of emissions as unknown.
“You tend not to address what you don't know,” Hamburg said.
As part of a settlement, the company paid $1 million. Of that, $425,000 went to the ODNR, another $425,000 went to local emergency agencies and the remaining $150,000 went to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“The incident ... was an unexpected accident lasting several days so the department, and other state and local authorities, responded promptly to protect public health, safety and the environment,“ Sarah Wickham, a spokeswoman for the ODNR, said in an emailed statement.
The Ohio EPA, which is in charge of regulating methane emissions, plans to examine the findings from TROPOMI.
“Ohio EPA will look at the data from this study; we agree that there is a lot of potential for future use of satellite technology to monitor and measure large emissions,” said James Lee, a spokesman for Ohio EPA in an emailed statement. “It’s also important to note that Ohio EPA has a very strong regulatory program concerning the oil and gas industry that has been recognized as one of the leaders compared to other states.“
Ohio’s emissions program includes established limits, monitoring and record-keeping requirements. Companies are allowed to hire a third party to test emission levels.
There are plans for the Environmental Defense Fund to launch another satellite in 2022 which would focus on methane emissions on a smaller scale.
“We won't map everything, but we will map all the oil- and gas-producing regions of the Earth,” Hamburg said. “And we will have much smaller pixel size, a greater spatial resolution and much lower detection limit — meaning you can see much, much smaller emission sources.”
So if countries or industrial sites claim they’re reducing emissions, the data will verify it.
While Hunkler is glad the information is getting out, she holds little hope the state will change how it regulates the industry. State officials, including Gov. Mike DeWine, have encouraged the construction of a petrochemical plant in Belmont County.
“With the regulatory agencies in Ohio, I don't have much faith left at all. Although I'm very encouraged by these reports that ... scientists are studying this, and certainly if nothing else, it's getting out there,” she said. “It has to get their attention.”