Study: 2018 Powhatan Methane Leak One of the Largest in U.S.

Study: 2018 Powhatan Methane Leak One of the Largest in U.S.

POWHATAN POINT — A new study states that a 2018 methane leak that followed a well pad explosion near Powhatan Point may have been one of the largest in U.S. history, but the company that operates the site estimates that less than half the amount cited in the report was actually released into the atmosphere.

A team of American and Dutch scientists published the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. In their report, the scientists conclude that large releases of methane, such the one that occurred at the Schnegg well pad on Cats Run Road, Powhatan Point, in February 2018, are more common than previously believed.

They say this is cause for concern because methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When burned as a fuel, methane actually is cleaner than coal, but when it is released prior to combustion, it is a more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide, because its absorbs more energy than CO2 does. Methane does break down more quickly than CO2, so it does not remain in the environment for as long.

The leak in Powhatan began on Feb. 15, 2018, when XTO Energy, an Exxon Mobil subsidiary, was in the completion phase of the fourth well on that pad after it had been drilled and fracked. An explosion occurred, and natural gas and brine poured out of the well producing intense flames for several hours. Once the fire was under control, methane that was not burning continued to be released from the well for about three weeks.

As a result of the incident, about 100 people from more than 30 homes within a 1-mile radius of the site were evacuated. XTO paid to lodge all of those people in area hotels, with some permitted to return home five days later and before the well was capped. Four households within a half-mile of the pad remained off limits until the process was completed. After their homes were cleaned by professionals, the last of the evacuees were permitted to return around March 10.

Drew Michanowicz, a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reacted to that report with alarm, since he believes methane is 84 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere when compared to carbon dioxide, or CO2.

The report estimates that the damaged well leaked methane at a rate of 80 tons an hour for nearly 20 days. That amounts to more methane than is released by the entire countries of France, Norway and the Netherlands in a typical year.

By Jennifer Compston-Strough, The Intelligencer