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A Fracking Explosion In Ohio Created One Of Worst Methane Leaks In History

A fracking explosion in Belmont County in February 2018 created one of the worst methane leaks in U.S. history.
Ohio State Highway Patrol Aviation Section
A fracking explosion in Belmont County in February 2018 created one of the worst methane leaks in U.S. history.

In February 2018, an explosion at a fracking site in Belmont County, near the Ohio-West Virginia border, forced residents within a 1-mile radius to evacuate their homes for several weeks.

A study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that the accident resulted in one of the largest methane leaks ever recorded in the U.S.

Powhatan Point fire chief Tom Nelms was among the first to respond after the explosion.

"At that time, that day, there were probably 50-80 people," Nelms said. The fire lasted for three days, but some people weren't able to return to their homes for weeks.

Nelms says he knew the methane leak was a big deal, but at the time no one really understood the magnitude of it.

Until now. A satellite designed to monitor Earth for methane leaks revealed that accident was one of the largest leaks recorded in the U.S.

“The blowout and the period of time it was occurring contributed 60,000 tons of methane to the atmosphere, and it represents in the case of Ohio one-quarter of the annual emissions coming from the oil and gas industry,” says Steven Hamburg, one of the study authors and the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

In fact, the Belmont County incident released more methane than the reported emissions of oil and gas industries of entire European countries.

“Methane is responsible for one-quarter of the warming that we’re currently experiencing,” Hamburg says. “It’s a very potent but short lived green house gas, so reducing those emissions will have the biggest impact on slowing the rate of warming.”

He says because of the nature of the odorless, colorless gas, it’s really hard to know when a leak has occurred.

“None of us pay attention to that which we can’t see or measure,” he says. “We’re giving the tools to be able to measure and quantify emissions around the globe which we didn’t have before.”

The fracking site is owned by Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy. In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for Exxon says they “regret the incident occurred, and have instituted systematic well design and monitoring procedures to prevent it from happening again.”

As far as the new study, XTO Energy says their scientists are reviewing the data.

Hamburg says this satellite can be used not just to hold companies like Exxon accountable, but also to help them reduce their methane emissions. That, he says, is in everyone’s best interest.

Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.