The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General has ruled EPA acted properly when it initially imposed, then later withdrew, restrictions on fracking operations near two Texas water wells. After defying Texas environmental officials and imposing restrictions on the fracking operations, EPA later declared there was no risk to homeowners using the water wells and dropped an enforcement action it was pursuing in federal court.
EPA, State Officials Disagree
In 2010 a Parker County resident reported bubbles in his well water and a natural gas odor. The resident contacted environmental officials at the Texas Railroad Commission, which has jurisdiction over oil and gas drilling in the state. He also notified EPA. EPA officials conducted tests and confirmed the presence of methane in the aquifer that fed the homeowner’s well and another nearby well.
In a move that sparked controversy, EPA blamed natural gas producer Range Resources for the contamination, claiming the company’s fracking operations near the well were the most likely source of the methane contamination. In December 2010, the agency issued an emergency order demanding the drilling company supply nearby residents with water, determine the cause of the contamination, and mitigate the damages.
Meanwhile, the Texas Railroad Commission conducted its own investigation and concluded the methane came from natural sources and Range Resources was not at fault. Range Resources refused to comply with EPA’s emergency order, which set up a high-profile legal and political battle.
The battle raged until March 2012, when the parties reached a settlement in which EPA agreed to withdraw the emergency order, and Range Resources committed to conducting water-quality tests on 20 wells every three months for one year and report the results to EPA.
Environmental activists criticized EPA for withdrawing its order. However, EPA justified its withdrawal decision after it determined litigation would be very expensive, the fracking operations posed no current risk to the owners of the wells, and an adverse legal decision would make it difficult for EPA to issue similar orders in the future. Also, a state court determined EPA used falsified evidence to link Range Resources to the methane contamination.
EPA’s case was undermined by the actions of its outspoken Region 6 (Dallas) Director at the time, Al Armendariz. Armendariz’s objectivity was called into question when, shortly before EPA issued its emergency order, he e-mailed local environmental activists to “Tivo channel 8” to watch EPA impose its action against Range Resources.
Armendariz also was caught on video giving a May 2010 speech in which he advocated EPA making examples out of energy companies regardless of their conduct. Armendariz favorably cited the example of the ancient Romans, saying “… they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them.” In the resulting uproar over his comments, Armendariz resigned his position.
EPA Lacks Adequate Data
With Armendariz’s exit and EPA’s settlement with Range Resources, the case lay dormant until the release of the Inspector General’s report. Without addressing the cause of the methane contamination, the EPA Inspector General concluded EPA’s emergency order and subsequent enforcement actions “conformed to agency guidelines, regulations, and policy.” Nevertheless, the report stated, “According to the EPA, the sampling Range Resources has completed indicates no widespread methane contamination of concern in the wells that were tested in Parker County, Texas.”
More than three-and-a-half years after EPA raised allegations of groundwater contamination resulting from fracking, the agency, according to the Inspector General, still lacks adequate data on the issue.
“Although EPA officials believe that current residents are not presently at risk, the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined,” the report says. “We believe that the EPA needs to implement cost-effective steps to better gauge the risk and document and disseminate its findings to affected residents.”
Chemical Fingerprints Don’t Match
The Texas Railroad Commission continues to monitor developments, including release of the EPA Inspector General’s report. Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye told Environment & Climate News testing shows the methane likely did not come from Range Resources activities.
“In regard to the EPA’s report, the Commission’s final order on this case was based on science and facts,” Nye said. “Specifically, during a January 2011 Commission-called hearing addressing informal complaints and a Commission staff investigation regarding two water wells, evidence presented during the hearing included geochemical fingerprinting demonstrating that gas in the domestic water wells came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface.”
“The gas tested did not match the gas produced by Range from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5,000 feet below the surface in that area,” Nye explained.
“Range also presented information that the two Range gas wells were mechanically sound, without any leaks,” Nye added. “Evidence presented at the hearing showed that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area could not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and shallower gas aquifers from which water wells in the area produce.”
No Excuse to Stifle Economy
“Unsubstantiated environmental allegations provide no justifiable excuse to halt fracking operations that are fueling the state’s economy,” said Jay Lehr, science director for the Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.
“Fracking is powering the dynamic job growth in energy producing states like Texas and North Dakota,” said Lehr. “There is no reason to halt this economic growth, which is making a real difference in millions of people’s lives, when even EPA admits it cannot link any water pollution to the fracking process.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
“Response to Congressional Inquiry Regarding the EPA’s Emergency Order to the Range Resources Gas Drilling Company,” U.S Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General, December 20, 2013, http://heartland.org/sites/default/files/epa_tx_nat_gas_report.pdf