Clear and Present Danger: The Impact

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Expert atmospheric scientist analyzes the impact of methane emissions on the environment

ANCONA, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Thousands of feet above a massive underground natural gas storage field that stretches from Ancona to Garfield in rural Lasalle and Livingston counties, traces of evidence suggest an ongoing emission of clear, nearly invisible methane gas is reaching the atmosphere.

The gas bubbles in rivers and hand-dug water wells, its vapors stream through vent pipes, and its chemical reaction in the soil leaves behind dead crops in farm fields. The smell of rotten eggs blows through dirt holes roadside ditches, and the cool, steady stream triggers alarms on gas detectors.

Nicor Gas, the company that operates the Ancona-Garfield gas storage facility, acknowledges that the original storage formation permitted by the state in the late 1960s is actively leaking.

“A small amount of gas migrates from the storage area to a shallower layer through natural geological features in the rock formation,” spokeswoman Jennifer Golz said in an email. “We recover the migrating gas through shallow gas wells and report those efforts and data annually to the ICC.”

Those records do “not account for gas that escaped into the atmosphere,” Vicki Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Commerce Commission clarified Tuesday afternoon. The records show an average of up to three million cubic feet of methane escapes from the storage reservoir on a daily basis.

Jim Stephens, a former state inspector with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, believes the company may be underestimating how much gas is actually escaping the field to begin with.

“It’s in excess of that,” Stephens said during an interview at his home in July. “They’re not capturing everything, you know, or it wouldn’t be bubbling up in water wells, it wouldn’t be bubbling up in creeks. It wouldn’t be bubbling up in road ditches.”

Stephens refers to himself as an “active environmentalist,” not an environmental activist.

“I believe in the environment,” he said. “I believe that everything works in harmony. And I’m actively trying to maintain it and help it instead of being the the person that stands out here with a sign screaming and yelling.”

Stephens says he pressed the company to reveal how much gas escapes into the atmosphere, but claims he couldn’t get a straight answer.

In a series of email exchanges, the company described the system it uses to try and redirect a portion of the leaking gas back underground.

“Nicor Gas installed a shallow gas collection system to manage the migration of a fraction of the stored gas to a shallower zone in order to prevent the emission into the atmosphere and redirect the gas back into the storage reservoir,” Golz said. “Based on the amount of natural gas recovered, less than 1% of the stored gas migrates to the shallower zone where it is recovered and redirected back into the storage reservoir.”

In other words, the gas company collects the leaking gas and pumps it back into the leaking storage field where it came from. Up to three million cubic feet of methane, or nearly one percent of the entire storage field’s contents, continually escape through that geological crack every day.

Don Wuebbles, a leading atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois, put three million cubic feet of methane into perspective.

“I ended up with 50,000 to 100,000 equivalent cars on the road per year by that one release of methane. So it makes a big difference.”

Wuebbles was one of the climate scientists who developed the ‘Global Warming Potentials,’ a formula he says most world governments use to calculate and convert the impact of various gases to the environment.

“For methane, the factor is about a factor of 28 higher than carbon dioxide,” Wuebbles explained.

While he described the leak in Ancona as a mere sliver of the global methane emissions, he described it as “a fairly large amount” that over a few years time could add up to be comparable to the amount of methane emissions in the massive gas leak in California’s Aliso Canyon that sparked a state of emergency.

Initially, Golz said, “The shallow gas collection system ensures the gas does not reach the atmosphere,” though in a later email, she acknowledged that, “there is a small amount of gas that reaches the surface at Ancona.”

She did not elaborate on the volume of excess gas, but stressed that the amount they capture and pump back down into the leaking reservoir “is equivalent to the energy use of more than 10,000 homes annually, or carbon offset produced by more than 100,000 acres of U.S. forest in one year.”

“Our shallow gas collection system is powered by two new electric-driven compressors, which contribute to our company’s net zero emission commitment,” Golz said. “Currently, our records indicate on average we collect 1.5-3 million cubic feet daily. To put that into perspective, that is less than 1% of our daily injection rates, which total 300 million cubic feet daily during the warmer months.”

“If that much emissions is going into the atmosphere, then that’s something that we really should be working hard to try to eliminate, because the ramifications of it are too large,” Wuebbles said.

Ruth Robinson, an attorney representing one of the family farms that sits on top of Nicor’s storage field in Ancona, studied environmental law in college and described the leak as “a fair amount of gas” that adds up to “a public nuisance.”

“We live in a day of accelerated global climate changing,” Robinson said. “And this is just one situation. How many of these are out there? How many of these type of situations are out there where gas is just unabated coming out of the ground for 30 to 40 years?”

“We know this happens,” Wuebbles said. “We’ve seen many examples where methane is escaping all over the world from underground reservoirs that we didn’t think it would escape from, we see bubbling of methane up in the oceans, we see methane bubbling up in various other parts of the world, and tundra, and so forth.”

Because the methane is unburned, Wuebbles said its initial impact on the climate is compounded by a rapid chain reaction where the molecules eventually leave behind a carbon dioxide.

“You form some ozone, you go through all the other reactions, and you end up with CO2,” he said.

“Concerns about climate change is one of the most important issues facing humanity,” he said. “We need to figure out how to deal with this. Not because it’s going to warm our temperature slightly. We hear global warming all the time from the media, but that’s not the important thing. Yes, we’re going to be warming more, but we’re going to get more severe weather, more intense, and including heat waves and things like that, but also more extreme precipitation. And then on top of that, you get melting ice and the expanding oceans because of the heat in the oceans. And so we get sea level rise. And those, between extreme weather and sea level rise, we’re having very serious issues already on humanity. And it’s only going to get more intense as we go down in the coming decades.”

State legislators have filed new proposals recently that would require Nicor to cover the cost of installing gas detectors and monitors in homes above the leaking gas field, in addition to a number of other safety measures.

“These big, multinational, multi billion dollar companies are polluting the area, whether it’s the air or the water, and we need to make sure people are safe, and we’re holding them accountable so that this kind of pollution stops,” Rep. Bob Morgan (D-Highwood) said.

Golz said the “people who rely on natural gas and those who live near our storage facilities should be confident in our rigorous operating standards and safety practices.”

State lawmakers are also considering a massive ‘Clean Energy Jobs Act’ proposal. Its supporters claim the plan would put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050, phasing out coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy entirely.

“I’ve always considered nuclear part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Wuebbles said, though he expressed frustration at how political debate often dilutes or confuses the science or the solutions surrounding climate change.

“Back before the Industrial Revolution, yes, climate changed naturally,” he said. “But now humans are changing the climate, and we’re changing at a much faster rate than nature tends to change the climate. That’s what makes it so difficult for humans and ecosystems to adapt is because it’s changing 10 times more rapidly than nature tends to change the climate. Yes, it has changed in the past. But that doesn’t mean right now isn’t an urgent time period. And we’re causing it, so we’ve got to take some responsibility here. And it’s gonna have a serious impact on us and on all the life on the planet.”

In his February budget address, Governor J.B. Pritzker said he wants the legislature to “pass an energy bill that protects our nuclear fleet and builds up our wind and solar industries.”

On Monday, for the first time, Pritzker acknowledged he had seen the reporting about the ongoing leak at Nicor’s Ancona facility, and said his administration is monitoring the situation.

“Obviously, what we want to do is make sure that people are kept safe, and that those who are responsible for this are held responsible and accountable,” Pritzker said in an interview set to air this upcoming Sunday.

“The consumers themselves are the people that I want to protect, and so we’re going to work with the ICC and others,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t direct the ICC, but they do make decisions that we’ll be watching closely.”

Lyndsay Jones contributed to this report.

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