In late 2010, two homeowners who lived over the Barnett Sale in Parker Texas near the drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations of Range Resources, a Fort Worth based natural gas driller, reported problems with their tap water, complaining that it was bubbling and even flammable. On Dec. 7, 2010, EPA issued an emergency administrative order to Range Resources to take immediate action to protect these homeowners. Now without explanation EPA has withdrawn the administrative order. The tale of this incident is not straightforward. The homeowners drinking water wells had been drilled in 2005 and no historical sampling beyond basic bacteria had ever been performed. However, whether or not I had been diligent in monitoring my private water supply if I suddenly discovered methane in my well, I, too, would want action, but it is possible that the appearance of the methane was not sudden. One of the families, the Lipsky family, sued Range Resources for $6,500,000 in damages.
Under the EPA order, Range Resources was required to provide drinking water to residents of two homes in Parker County whose water wells the agency said had been contaminated with methane by Range Resource’s natural gas drilling. In addition, the Emergency Order directed Range to install explosivity meters in the two houses within 48 hours, perform and submit to the EPA a survey “of all private water wells within 3,000 of each of their well and all of the Lake Country Acres public water supply system wells,” within five days along with a plan to sample air and water at those wells. In addition, Range Resources was to submit to the EPA for approval “a plan to conduct soil gas surveys and indoor air concentration in the homes within 14 days. A dramatic video on U-Tube of what appeared to be flaming water may have contributed to the EPA determination.
The Texas Railroad Commission held hearings on the incident. To those of us not familiar with the Texas regulatory structure, the Railroad Commission of Texas was established in 1891 and is the oldest regulatory agency in the state. For more than 90 years, the Commission has regulated the oil and gas industry. In addition the Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over gas utility, surface mining and pipeline industries. The Railroad Commission has both the expertise and experience to address these concerns. The Commission invited the EPA and the two domestic water well owners to present their evidence at the Commission’s January 19-20, 2011 administrative law hearing. However, neither the EPA nor the water well owners or their representatives appeared to testify.
Evidence presented during the Commission’s hearing included geochemical gas fingerprinting that demonstrated the gas in the domestic water wells came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface. The natural gas tested did not match the gas produced by Range Resources from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5,000 feet below the surface in that area. Range Resources also presented information to demonstrate that the two Range Resources gas wells were mechanically sound and without any leaks.
The evidence presented at the hearing demonstrated to the satisfaction of the state regulators and the administrative law judge that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area did not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and shallow aquifers from which water wells in the area draw their water and the Railroad Commission voted unanimously to clear the company of the charges last March. Texas Railroad Commission hearing examiners issued a finding that Range Resources two Barnett Shale natural gas wells were not the source of methane-gas contamination of residential water wells in Parker County.
Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the hearing in Texas, on January 20, 2011, Range Resources filed its petition for review of the Administrative Order with the federal Court asserting that EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously in issuing the Emergency Order and counter sued one of the homeowners. It appears that one of the homeowners, the Lipsky’s created a dramatic video of flames coming from the well by attaching a hose to the water well's gas vent, not the water line as represented in the video and then lit the gas from the hose's nozzle. A Texas Judge found the video to be deceptive and the judge threw out the Lipskys' $6,500,000 lawsuit against Range Resources. The Judge ruled that the couple lacked legal jurisdiction to sue because the Texas Railroad Commission had determined in March that Range's gas wells were not responsible for contaminating their well.
Meanwhile, EPA countered Range Resources motion to dismiss that the endangerment determination was based on its concern that “methane in the levels found by EPA are potentially explosive or flammable, and benzene if ingested or inhaled could cause cancer, anemia, neurological impairment and other adverse health impacts and that this threat two private drinking water wells was a reasonable exercise of EPA’s authority under section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act. ” The benzene levels found were below the regulatory maximum contaminant level, MCL, under the SDWA.
Though the EPA web site states: “The Safe Drinking Water Act gives EPA authority is to abate conditions in the water supply that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health. This authority is generally triggered when a contaminant present in, or likely to enter, a public water system or underground drinking water source, may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health, and the state or local authority as not acted.” It is not entirely clear upon reading that the SDWA extends to groundwater beyond Underground Injection Control. Private drinking water wells are clearly not public water supplies.
Range resources’ challenge against the order was pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit when the EPA withdrew the order on last Thursday and stated that: "EPA and Range will share scientific data and conduct further well monitoring in the area, and Range will also provide useful information and access to EPA in support of EPA's scientific inquiry into the potential impacts of energy extraction on drinking water."
The EPA has also agreed with Wyoming state regulators earlier in March to conduct more tests at a site in Pavillion, where initial results found evidence that fracking contributed to water pollution. State regulators and industry officials questioned those initial results. In Wyoming where the water table is deep and the gas shallow the drinking water aquifer has been impacted. The EPA, announced last December that glycols, alcohols, methane and benzene were found in a well the EPA drilled into the drinking water aquifer in Wyoming within the Pavillion field were consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids and likely due to fracking. The oil company responsible for these wells and the state regulators claimed that the results were inconclusive because methane can naturally seep into groundwater wells that provide drinking water. This is a rare occurrence that is usually confined to deeper water wells in the coal-producing areas, but these were deeper wells in a coal producing area. Benzene could have been introduced into the water by previous generations of oil and gas development. EPA appears to be backing off from its previous stance and point of view on fracking and water contamination for the moment. Possibly EPA should deploy fewer lawyers and more scientists and really study hydraulic fracturing or allow the states to develop regulations and controls appropriate to their specific geology.