For EPA, a Troubling (Email) Chain of Events
If you thought you knew everything there was to know about EPA’s fracking follies last year, a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by E&E News (sub's reqd.) provides valuable insight into the agency’s deliberations on these matters. Namely, in a series of high-profile backtracks on natural gas EPA appears to be placing the unfounded claims of natural gas activists over the expertise of state regulators.
As has been pretty well and widely documented by now, EPA’s ongoing effort aimed at inserting itself into state investigations broadly focused on shale and hydraulic fracturing issues has not, heretofore, gone especially well. First, there was Parker Co., Texas; then came Pavillion, Wyo. And who can forget Dimock, Pennsylvania? In each case, EPA came, saw, and eventually retreated. Not because of some grand conspiracy or back-room dealing – but because in the end, after all the data was collected and all the numbers were run, the science simply wasn’t on its side.
But if you thought you knew everything there was to know about EPA’s fracking follies last year, a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by E&E News (sub’s reqd.) provides valuable insight into the agency’s deliberations on these matters. Time and again reading through the emails, it appears the agency assigns greater weight to claims made by anti-shale activists rather than the testimonials and direction imparted by the professionals who regulate oil and gas activities on the state level. The same regulators, by the way, whose proven record led former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to declare “states are stepping up and doing a good job” in regulating natural gas development.
Let’s examine these cases again, with the benefit of additional context from these newly recently internal EPA emails.
Parker County, Tex.
EPA’s troubled history in pursuing alleged claims of contamination first became publicly apparent following the agency’s fits and starts in Parker County, Texas. As we reported previously, the agency’s enforcement actions in Texas were pursued only after close coordination and prodding from local activists.
The collusion was epitomized in an infamous email from former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz, who gleefully alerted anti-shale activists of a forthcoming endangerment order again Range Resources:
“We’re about to make a lot of news…there’ll be an official press release in a few minutes … time to Tivo channel 8.”
Fifteen months later, EPA withdrew its order — no doubt due to the begrudging acknowledgment that its case was scientifically baseless. But the story doesn’t end there.
According to emails sent on January 4, 2011, former EPA communications officer Betsaida Alcantara and Associate EPA Administrator Seth Oster were corresponding with Josh Fox, the producer of the widely discredited 2010 documentary ‘Gasland.’
Following that exchange, Alcantra remarks to Armendariz that “Josh spoke very highly of you fyi!” Armendariz response was even more concerning as he noted “it was good working with [Fox] for Gasland, we try to keep in touch every so often.” (emphasis added)
The regional administrator not only happily accepts the interview, but then shifts into the film-maker’s production assistant, asking his colleagues to arrange an outdoor interview where Fox “can get good background shots.” Helping Josh Fox get the best scenery for one of his hyperbolic films is hardly indicative of an administrator — or an agency — interested in being a neutral arbiter.
Now, compare that exchange to communications between senior EPA officials and the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), the state regulatory body that oversees oil and gas development in Texas. The Commission tried to warn the EPA that the agency’s findings were “premature” due to RRC’s ongoing investigation and a lack of data supporting EPA’s assertions. Armendariz’s response to those repeated warnings consisted of one single word, that word being “stunning.”
In separate correspondence, Steven Chester, Deputy Assistant Administrator at EPA for enforcement and compliance, and Bob Sussman, then Senior Policy Counsel to Administrator Jackson, attempted to console the regional administrator after RRC Commissioner David Porter calls for Armendariz to be terminated over the flap (the regional administrator would later resign only to later gain employment with the Sierra Club).
Wait, what? On the one hand, senior EPA officials are giddy to receive praise from a known and discredited activist filmmaker; on the other, they reject the pragmatic advice of state regulators and then chastise those regulators for expecting the EPA to base its actions based on sound science.
A similar situation can be seen in correspondence unearthed by a Scranton Times Tribune FOIA request that yielded more than 3,000 emails relating to EPA’s actions in the small town of Dimock, Pa. Like the FOIA request in Texas, that correspondence shows an agency quick to respond to dubious claims from activists that, in this case, were rejected by state regulators. Here again, senior level EPA officials seemed to provide more credence to activists’ claims than the findings of state enforcement agencies who actually have expertise in the field.
To wit: In original correspondence EPA’s Chief of Groundwater and Enforcement in Region 3, Karen Johnson, sent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official Scott Perry an email confirming that the water in Dimock did not pose a threat to human health. In fact, Johnson even sought to assuage Perry’s concerns that EPA’s involvement would inflame the situation; a real concern given sensitivities with the topic at the time. From the email (page 284):
From: KarenDJohnson/R3/USEPA/US 11/07/2011 07:43 AM
To: “Perry, Scott (DEP)”
Subject RE: Dimock visit
Believe me we aren’t going to do anything to do that…the guy from ATSDR hopefully can alley fears about health effects…I’ve been going through the data , even the “outside” analytical services agree with range of sampling already done just fine…can’t figure out what is going on..
I’ll let you know how it goes…
Karen D. Johnson, Chief
Ground Water & Enforcement Branch
That sentiment would later be solidified when EPA sent an email to Dimock residents on December 2, 2011, stating “the data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.”
But four days later, Josh Fox sent an open letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling for her agency to intervene in Dimock because state regulators had allegedly “failed.” No evidence, no facts, just a classic attempt to garner headlines. Within two days of receipt of that letter, EPA staff in Washington, D.C. organized a conference call between Jackson and officials from Region 3 to discuss the agency’s ongoing efforts in Dimock. From the emails (page 496):
From: Ann Campbell /DC/USEPA/US
Sent: 12/08/2011 06:17 AM
To: Cynthia Dougherty, Ann Codrington, Fred Hauchman, Jeanne Briskin, Linda Boornazian, KarenD Johnson, Victoria Binetti, Carrie Wehling, Jon Capacasa
Subject: An Open Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to Intervene in Dimock, PA because the State of Pennsylvania has Failed
Folks – below is the letter from Josh Fox to the Administrator that was discussed during yesterday’s call. A briefing has been scheduled for Friday, Dec 16 to provide the Administrator with background on the situation in Dimock, any analysis or conclusions that have been drawn from the review of the state’s data, and options, if appropriate, for dealing with the situation. Bob will be setting up a prebrief to prep for the Administrator’s meeting early next week so I’d like to spend some time on this during the Tuesday workgroup call.
Seemingly in response to Fox’s baseless claims, EPA announced a few weeks later that they would “perform water sampling at approximately 60 homes in the area of Dimock, Pa.,” based on what the EPA termed potential “health concerns.”
In other words, the EPA – based on hard data that had also been reviewed by state regulators – agreed that Dimock’s water was safe. But shortly after receiving Josh Fox’s open letter, they abandoned their evidence-based conclusion. As Al Armendariz might say, stunning.
In each of these examples, EPA either ignored efforts by state regulators or placed a higher emphasis on the unsupported claims of known – and discredited – anti-natural gas activists. And remember, these are the same activists who tried to instill fear in the public by promoting breast cancer claims in Texas — which, predictably, were later rebuffed by actual health experts in an Associated Press review titled “Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science,” where even the AP explained the lack of basis for anti-shale activism.
In the end, EPA’s actions against oil and gas operators in at least two high profile cases were directly related to pleadings from known and discredited anti-natural gas activists, and directly against the findings of actual regulators. Little wonder, then, why the EPA has been consistently forced to back track in each of these cases, as scientific investigations yielded different results than what activists’ talking points would suggest. It happened in Texas, it happened in Dimock, and — barring an internal EPA shift away from giving primacy to opponents’ claims over regulatory judgments — chances are it will happen again.
*UPDATE XX* EPA Official: “Crucify” Operators to “Make Examples” of Them
According to a recently released video, EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz told an audience during a city council meeting in DISH, TX, that his philosophy of enforcement was, to put it nicely, less than objective.
UPDATE XX (2/22/2013, 9:33 am ET): As part of his last desperate defense of the baseless endangerment order against Range Resources, then-EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz circulated a list of alleged casing problems due to Range’s operations — in Pennsylvania. Why a regional administrator would seek to highlight potential issues of a company operating in a different geological formation (and in a different EPA region) is unclear, although Armendariz’s comments about wantonly “crucifying” operators suggests a personal animosity could have been a factor. How else could one explain his decision to tarnish the company’s reputation in a manner that had absolutely nothing to do with operations in Parker County, Texas?
The list was uncovered in the latest EnergyWire report (subs. req’d) on the Parker County case, although it was buried several paragraphs deep in the story.
UPDATE XIX (2/8/2013, 10:51am ET): New emails obtained by EnergyWire show that then-administrator of Region 6, Al Armendariz, was discussing with others inside the EPA the possibility of Range not being at fault for methane concentrations in the Parker County water wells. Here’s how Mike Soraghan summarized the correspondence in his story earlier this week:
On Dec. 27, 2011, Armendariz outlined a position to take to Washington officials. His “least preferable” option included settling without requiring Range to provide water. But EPA would reserve the right to go after Range again with penalties if testing showed the company had contaminated the aquifer. (emphasis added)
So, a little over a year after Armendariz gleefully emailed local activists to “Tivo channel 8″ to see his agency impose a baseless endangerment order against Range Resources, and 11 months after clear scientific evidence was presented to state regulators confirming Range was not at fault, the EPA finally began quietly and confidentially discussing the possibility that their order was without merit.
This also raises important questions: Shouldn’t the EPA have had clear testing results showing contamination from Range’s activities before issuing its endangerment order against the company? And what does that say about the EPA’s own case against Range if the agency itself didn’t have enough evidence even a year after the fact? Of course, given Armendariz’s stated willingness to “crucify” gas companies solely so he could more easily control them, perhaps this strategy was bizarrely consistent with his method of enforcement.
UPDATE XVIII (1/15/2013, 9:02am ET): EnergyWire has obtained data from the EPA — made available through a FOIA request, full story here — showing naturally occurring methane in the water wells that now-former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz had claimed beyond all doubt were contaminated by natural gas development. The data came from tests conducted by Range Resources as part of an agreement with the EPA, and the specific findings suggest water quality is consistent with historical conditions in Parker County. Put differently, data obtained directly from the EPA even show that Armendariz’s endangerment order against Range Resources was baseless, a fact already strongly suggested by nearly all scientific evidence that was available to the EPA when the order itself was issued in 2010.
Perhaps Armendariz, who now works for the anti-natural gas Sierra Club, should have paid more attention to credible evidence instead of working behind the scenes with local activists to “crucify” oil and gas companies.
UPDATE XVII (10/31/2012, 10:45am ET): At a recent event sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists, Al Armendariz doubled down on his baseless finding of water contamination in Parker County. In response, Range Resources has sent a letter to the former EPA official, reminding him that his recent comments are “contradicted by facts, science, independent expert analysis, the final adjudicated decision of the Railroad Commission of Texas, the EPA’s internal documents, and sworn testimony from EPA’s sole witness to testify about [his] order.” The letter further requests that Armendariz stop making “false and disparaging comments” about the company that he wrongfully maligned.
It’s not clear why Al Armendariz, recently removed from a top post at the Environmental Protection Agency for saying that the government should “crucify” bad actors in the energy industry, abruptly canceled plans to testify before a House panel on Wednesday.
But it is clear that he was in Washington that day and met with someone — at the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization.
On Wednesday afternoon, when a reporter visited the Sierra Club’s Washington headquarters just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, Armendariz’s name was written on the sign-in sheet as having been the last person to visit the office. The visit apparently came only a few hours after Armendariz had infuriated Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee when he canceled his scheduled testimony on EPA enforcement issues without offering a reason.
So, just to recap: Prior to becoming Region 6 administrator for the EPA, Al Armendariz’s claim to fame was authoring a study about air emissions that, even at the time, air quality regulators for the state strongly disavowed, and since then have definitively debunked. As administrator, he maintained a close relationship with anti-shale activists, said his method of enforcing regulations was to “crucify” oil and gas companies, and even issued an endangerment order against Range Resources that was so lacking in scientific merit that the EPA itself had to withdraw the order. And now, instead of attending a hearing in front of a House committee at which he had agreed to appear, he chooses to meet with the Sierra Club, an activist organization that has made no apology for being for natural gas before it was against it.
Tough day for those who claim Mr. Armendariz has never been improperly swayed by professional opponents of oil and gas development.
UPDATE XV (5/4/2012, 8:21am ET): A must-read editorial from the Washington Post says the EPA is “earning a reputation for abuse,” citing the Sackett case and the events surrounding Al Armendariz. The final two sentences are particularly apt:
The agency’s officers must have a clear sense when to deploy its mighty power and when to exercise discretion. That’s true for the sake of the economy and to ensure that the EPA will be able to continue its necessary work for years to come.
Also be sure to check out Kim Strassel’s piece in the Wall Street Journal today, which has much more on the preceding events in Parker County than what most other outlets have included in their stories.
UPDATE XIV (4/30/2012, 3:42pm ET): Armendariz’s replacement will be Sam Coleman, who served as EPA’s point man in New Orleans during the response to Hurricane Katrina. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, meanwhile, issued the following statement: “I respect the difficult decision he made and his wish to avoid distracting from the important work of the agency. We are all grateful for Dr. Armendariz’s service to EPA and to our nation.”
UPDATE XIII (4/30/2012, 12:04pm ET): The Dallas Morning News reports that Al Armendariz has resigned, and has posted his letter of resignation (which is also below):
I have been honored to serve as your regional administrator for EPA’s region 6 office the last 2 and 1/2 years. I never once forgot that the reason I was appointed was to serve you, to act as your voice, and to work day and night to better protect the environment and your safety.
Today I am resigning my position as regional administrator. This was not something that was asked of me by Administrator Jackson or the White House. It is a decision I made myself. I had become too much of a distraction, and no one person is more important than the incredible work being done by the rest of the team at EPA.
I leave with an incredible sense of pride for the things the Agency accomplished and it was fantastic to be a part of the effort. Administrator Jackson has overseen a renaissance in the Agency and it is again the global leader in environmental protection. President Obama has been incredibly supportive of me and my work and the Agency. He’ll undoubtedly go down as the most environmental president we have ever had.
Thank you all for letting me into your homes and communities, and showing me the challenges you face every day from pollution and lack of infrastructure. Your stories are now part of my fabric and the fabric of the Agency.
UPDATE XII (4/27/2012, 3:50pm ET): EPA Region 6 covers five states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico — and now more than half of the U.S. Representatives from those states are calling for Armendariz to “be relieved of his position” as administrator. In a letter signed by 29 of the 42 U.S. Representatives from Region 6, as well as by Iowa Rep. Steve King and Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, the members of Congress also state: “We are deeply disappointed in not only the statements of Mr. Armendariz, but also the abrasive, hostile posture that his office has struck during his tenure.”
UPDATE XI (4/27/2012, 12:12pm ET): EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has now weighed in, calling Armendariz’s comments “inflammatory,” “disappointing,” and “not representative” of the Agency. She also declined to say whether any disciplinary actions would be taken, noting only that she and the EPA “will continue to review” the situation.
This once again begs an important question, though: Armendariz described his comments as “my philosophy of enforcement,” so if those comments are “not representative” of the EPA, then how does the Agency continue to reconcile two diametrically opposed views by allowing Armendariz to remain as Region 6 administrator?
UPDATE X (4/27/2012, 9:39am ET): The case of the missing video just got a little more interesting. Apparently the video was originally uploaded by a gentleman named David McFatridge, who posted the video to a YouTube page called “Citizen Media for We The People.” But McFatridge cited a copyright infringement, so the website yanked the video. It’s little wonder why McFatridge wanted the video pulled down, though: he’s apparently a member of the Sierra Club Activist Network. And when it comes to opposing oil and gas development, the Sierra Club is one of the largest and most active organizations, so it wouldn’t want to have its fingerprints on this at all. Too late? (h/t Lachlan Markay)
UPDATE IX (4/27/2012, 8:33am ET): Some pretty big developments overnight, starting with former Obama White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein calling Armendariz’s comments “absolutely reprehensible” on CNBC (his comments begin around the eight minute mark). Later in the segment Bernstein even brags, “I used to work for President Obama.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) has also joined the growing chorus (subs. req’d) calling for Armendariz to resign.
And in another interesting twist, YouTube has taken down the video of Armendariz making his inflammatory comments, citing a copyright issue. More to come on that development, for sure.
UPDATE VIII (4/26/2012; 9:18pm ET): Four more U.S. Representatives are now calling for Armendariz’s resignation: GOP Congressmen Steve Scalise, Rodney Alexander, and Charles Boustany (all from Louisiana), as well as Rep. Pete Olson from Texas. That brings the running total to seven total members of the U.S. Congress calling publicly for Armendariz to step down or even be fired.
UPDATE VII (4/26/2012; 9:04pm ET): Add U.S. Rep. Ted Poe to the list of members of Congress calling for the resignation of Al Armendariz. The Texas Republican took to the House floor to condemn the Region VI administrator this evening by saying, in part: “He needs to be replaced with someone that cares more about the environment than personal crusades against industry.” Both the Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily have also called for Armendariz to step down.
UPDATE VI (4/26/2012; 4:42pm ET): “Unacceptable and embarrassing.” That’s the way the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is characterizing Mr. Armendariz’s remarks in a joint statement issued just now by TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw, Ph.D, and commissioners Carlos Rubinstein and Toby Baker.
Their statement in full: “The EPA’s ‘crucifixion’ philosophy and agenda is unacceptable and embarrassing. The EPA Region 6 director’s outlandish comments significantly cheapen the role of the state and federal regulators who strive to ensure that sound environmental rules and policies are promulgated and enforced. Furthermore, such a philosophy flies in the face of the sound science, the law, and common sense that TCEQ regularly utilizes in pursuing legitimate enforcement actions where violations do in fact exist.
“We believe the way to protect human health and the environment is through vigorous enforcement, utilizing the state’s administrative procedures that are afforded to the public and the regulated community.”
UPDATE V (4/26/2012; 4:14pm ET): Simon Rosenberg, former staffer to President Clinton and Michael Dukakis and now the president of the New Democratic Network, a leading progressive think tank in D.C., told FOX News this afternoon that Al Armendariz needs to go. According to Rosenberg: “First of all, I think this EPA official should be fired, immediately. He’s clearly not fit to be serving the country, talking the way that he is.” Clip is available here – Rosenberg’s comments come in at minute 3.
UPDATE IV (4/26/2012, 3:33pm ET): At least two members of Congress, Reps. John Fleming and Jeff Landry (both from Louisiana), are publicly calling for Armendariz to resign or be fired. This follows in the wake of comments last month from Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter, who cited Armendariz’s use of “fear mongering, gross negligence and severe mishandling” of the Parker County case as a reason for him to be removed from his position as Region VI Administrator. We’ll be monitoring the news to see if any additional members of Congress or other officials make similar requests, so stay tuned.
UPDATE III (4/26/2012, 2:20pm ET): Ed Henry, previously with CNN but now the White House correspondent for FOX News, just asked Jay Carney, the President’s press secretary, if the administration had a response to Armendariz’s inflammatory remarks.
Henry, citing President Obama’s promise to foster and promote a “new tone” among members of his administration, posed the following question to Carney: “If somebody’s saying we should crucify the industry, why is that person still working at the EPA as a political appointee?” Carney responded: “He apologized, and what he said is clearly not representative of either this president’s belief in the way that we should approach these matters, or in the way that he has approached these matters, either from this office here in the White House or at the EPA.”
Carney’s response still begs the question, though: If what Armendariz described as “my philosophy of enforcement” is, in fact, “not representative” of what the president (who appointed him, and whom he represents) believes, then how does the White House reconcile the fact that Armendariz is still representing the administration as its EPA Region VI administrator?
UPDATE II (4/26/2012, 9:51am ET): U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is demanding an investigation into Armendariz’s comments, is not buying the Region VI Administrator’s apology. “His apology was meaningless,” Inhofe said. “You’re going to treat people like the Romans crucified the church? Get real.” The Senator also noted, as EID did below, that Armendariz has never apologized for grabbing headlines by (wrongly) accusing oil and gas companies like Range Resources of harming the environment, only to withdraw those complaints once the EPA realizes its accusations are, in fact, completely unfounded. Such actions certainly appear to reinforce the strategy Armendariz articulated in the video.
UPDATE (4/26/2012, 8:48am ET): Armendariz has issued a statement apologizing for the comments he made in the video. However, Cynthia Giles, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, didn’t exactly deny the philosophy Armendariz articulated, noting in a statement: “Strong, fair and effective enforcement of the environmental laws passed by Congress is critical to protecting public health and ensuring that all companies, regardless of industry, are playing by the same rules” (full statement can be found here). Armendariz still has not apologized for his emails to activists urging them to “Tivo channel 8″ prior to his office issuing what turned out to be a scientifically baseless charge against Range Resources in 2010.
—Original post from April 25, 2012—
EID has followed closely the actions of EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, and specifically its decision to issue an endangerment order against Range Resources back in 2010 despite clear scientific evidence in contradiction of its charges (embarrassingly for the agency, EPA had to withdraw that order earlier this year). This includes pointing out how the Administrator for that office, Al Armendariz, gleefully emailed activists in the area (prior to the official announcement) that EPA was “about to make a lot of news” and that it was “time to Tivo channel 8.”
That news, of course, was that EPA “determined” Range Resources had contaminated drinking water in Parker County, Texas. Local anti-shale activist Sharon Wilson cheerfully responded, “Hats off to the new Sheriff and his deputies!”
But as it turns out, the story behind Mr. Armendariz’s actions is much deeper, and indeed much more troubling.
According to a recently released video, Armendariz – who also appeared in Josh Fox’s infamous film Gasland – told an audience during a city council meeting in DISH, TX, that his philosophy of enforcement as an official public servant was, to put it nicely, less than objective.
Here’s a breakdown of what Armendariz said in May 2010, a few months before Region VI issued its endangerment order against Range Resources:
“But as I said, oil and gas is an enforcement priority, it’s one of seven, so we are going to spend a fair amount of time looking at oil and gas production.”
Nothing too inflammatory there, really…other than the fact that an EPA administrator — tasked as a public servant to operate objectively in his capacity as a regulator — was essentially putting a bulls-eye on a particular industry. But the next part of what Armendariz said is where things got really interesting. And shocking:
“I was in a meeting once and I gave an analogy to my staff about my philosophy of enforcement, and I think it was probably a little crude and maybe not appropriate for the meeting but I’ll go ahead and tell you what I said. It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”
Armendariz went on to explain more about how this works with the oil and gas industry specifically, stating “you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them” and that one should “go aggressively after them.” Of course, Armendariz knew that taking such an aggressive course would also sock it to the industry financially, adding: “Compliance can get very high, very, very quickly.”
Strangely enough, Armendariz had initially described this as his own philosophy, but after he finished explaining how to “make examples” out of hardworking oil and gas workers, he said “that’s our general philosophy.”
One U.S. Senator has already sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking (among other things) if Armendariz’s statements about sacking Turkish villages are, in fact, reflective of EPA’s “general philosophy” when it comes to regulation and enforcement.
So, not only was Armendariz working closely with ideological opponents of oil and gas development before issuing a scientifically-baseless endangerment order against a particular oil and gas company, he was also operating under a broader philosophy that sees the industry as villagers who can and indeed ought to be crucified, for the sole purpose of making an example out of them.
But the story, tragically, doesn’t end there.
One of Armendariz’s original claims to fame — or infamy, perhaps — was his paper in 2009, which found that “the oil and gas sector likely has greater emissions than motor vehicles” in the five counties comprising the Dallas-Fort Worth region (“emissions,” in this case, referred to nitrogen oxides [NOx] and volatile organic compounds [VOCs]). That paper, written while Armendariz was a professor at Southern Methodist University, was widely celebrated by activists, who — possibly as a “thank you” to the professor — actively pushed for Armendariz to be appointed Administrator of EPA’s Region VI office. Upon assuming office, groups like the Sierra Club celebrated, calling it “great news” because the industry was “having an ‘oh sh–’ moment” about the appointment. Other shale opponents, including area resident Sharon Wilson, appeared happily in pictures with Armendariz.
To this day, opposition groups still cite the talking point that oil and gas production generates more emissions than all the cars and trucks in the DFW region, a claim that ultimately gets traced back to Armendariz’s paper.
But as it turns out, Armendariz’s original claim to fame — that snazzy talking point about cars and trucks — is just as dubious as the headline-grabbing endangerment order his office issued against Range Resources.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Armendariz’s conclusion that oil and gas operations emit more smog-forming emissions than mobile sources is simply not true. In 2009, TCEQ wrote that Armendariz’s paper provided “an incomplete picture” of emissions in the area, adding that several critical flaws contributed to “misleading conclusions” in the paper. In addition, the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council (BSEEC) took a hard look at the Armendariz paper and dismantled its underlying premises, noting along the way that Armendariz’s conclusions were based on “an inaccurate and flawed interpretation of the facts.”
Furthermore, TCEQ recently responded to an inquiry about regional emissions levels (the full response was obtained by EID and can be found here), which included an updated assessment of sources of emissions in the DFW area. TCEQ pointed out that VOC emissions from oil and gas production are less than half those from mobile sources (63 tons per day [tpd] vs 129 tpd). For NOx, TCEQ states that mobile source emissions “are approximately 15 times higher” than those generated from oil and gas production.
Sure, TCEQ’s latest findings are much more current than what Armendariz published back in 2009. One would expect (and, frankly, hope) that technological developments over time would facilitate more accurate readings.
But it’s also difficult to lend much credence to the argument that Armendariz’s findings were simply due to a methodological or technological difference, especially in light of the fact that his two most significant actions in attempting to “crucify” and “make examples” of the oil and gas industry have been rendered completely and unequivocally bogus by actual scientific inquiry.
The question is, with Al Armendariz’s troubling and offensive “philosophy of enforcement” no longer a secret kept by activists, but rather a part of the public record, does the Region VI office — and indeed the entire EPA — have any credibility as long as he remains in his current position?
*UPDATE III* What the AP Forgot to Mention about Parker Co. Case
Associated Press reporter Ramit Plushnicik-Masti’s most recent assessment of the Parker County case appears to have been designed from the very beginning to ignore the validity of the EPA's endangerment order itself, and instead weaves a dubious narrative of industry manipulation of the regulatory process.
UPDATE III (1/23/2013, 10:57am ET): A U.S. House Representative from Texas is now calling out the AP for its flawed report on Parker County. Congressman Pete Olson (R) writes in the Houston Chronicle that last week’s story “falls well short of the AP’s claim to journalistic standards” and omitted important facts about the case it attempted to describe, including the vast scientific literature that exonerated Range Resources. Olson adds that the central allegation — that Range pressured EPA to drop the order in exchange for cooperation in the agency’s hydraulic fracturing study — is “ludicrous and not supported by facts.”
“The AP has a duty to give the public accurate and balanced information that includes all of the facts. The debate on the safety of hydraulic fracturing, a technological breakthrough that is revolutionizing our energy supply and providing energy security, is critically important. The public deserves the truth and an organization like the AP should live up to its reputation of honest reporting. Excluding relevant facts to claim that EPA dropped its case because the company threatened to withhold cooperation with a national study is dishonest. This article is a blatant disservice to the public on an important national issue.”
Be sure to read the full op-ed by clicking here.
UPDATE II (1/22/2013, 9:04am ET): Will Brackett, Managing Editor of the Powell Shale Digest (which is headquartered in north Texas), has an excellent editorial detailing the flaws in AP’s reporting on Parker County. Among many of his salient points is the observation: Why, with so many companies available to cooperate with EPA on its hydraulic fracturing study, would the agency withdraw its allegation of contamination merely to get one company on board? If the EPA had a concrete scientific case — or even a marginally acceptable one — how is it plausible that the agency would ever abandon that, especially as they still cling to a fundamentally flawed conclusion in Pavillion, Wyoming? From Brackett:
…Given the EPA’s track record, does anyone really believe industry and political pressure could sway the EPA to back down if the federal agency really did have solid scientific evidence against the natural gas industry and hydraulic fracturing? Get serious here.
The assertion that the EPA changed course against Range because the company refused to cooperate in the EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study is just as absurd and defies common sense. With hundreds of oil and gas companies available, why would the EPA be so desperate that it would drop its order just to cut a deal for its frac study?
UPDATE (1/16/2013, 3:39pm ET): The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has posted a version of the AP’s story, but with some additional details that the official Associated Press version neglected to include:
Thyne’s report appears at odds with evidence introduced by Range at a hearing into the matter before the Texas Railroad Commission in 2011. At that hearing, which the EPA did not participate in, the agency’s examiners found that the gas in Lipsky’s well and other water wells in the area was “most likely” from a much shallower formation called the Strawn.
Examiner Gene Montes said geochemical fingerprinting analysis of the gas in the contaminated wells indicated that it likely came from the Strawn, and didn’t match Barnett Shale gas. The three-member Railroad Commission in March 2011 ruled Range was not at fault.
How did the AP characterize that portion of the story? By merely stating: “state regulators declared in March 2011 that Range Resources was not responsible” for the presence of methane in the Lipsky’s well. No discussion of the fingerprinting analysis – a process that was given attention with respect to Thyne’s paper, though, as if it were some new and never-before-used technique in this case – and certainly no mention of the hearing where experts presented scientific evidence disproving the link between Range’s operations and methane found in the water.
Also of note: Range Resources is not part of the EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study. That begs a pretty important question: How could Range “pressure” the EPA to drop its endangerment order in exchange for participating in the study if Range is not, in fact, participating in the study?
Finally, for those interested, the now-infamous Thyne paper – which we are supposed to believe is a slam dunk, and that the enormous data sets showing otherwise do not exist – can be accessed here.
—Original post, January 16, 2013—
Back in 2010, then-administrator of EPA Region 6, Al Armendariz, appeared before an audience in north Texas and explained that his method of enforcing the law against oil and gas operators was similar to hostile Roman takeovers of outer territories. “It was kind of like how the Roman used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean,” he explained. “They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”
Later that year, working behind the scenes with activists who had developed a “strategy” to make a water well appear to be on fire so they could get the EPA to blame natural gas development, Armendariz sent a friendly heads-up email to folks opposed to oil and gas development. “We’re about to make a lot of news,” Armendariz wrote to his friends and allies, some representing the most active anti-shale organizations in Texas. He added: “There’ll be an official press release in a few minutes … time to Tivo channel 8.”
That news was the issuance of an unprecedented “endangerment order” against Range Resources, which accused the company of contaminating drinking water. The order was a direct result of the aforementioned “strategy,” which consisted of a hired consultant suggesting people attach a garden hose to a gas vent and lighting it on fire, then filming the whole thing to make it appear that a household’s drinking water posed a threat of explosion. Doing so, they reasoned, would get the more aggressive EPA involved. “It is worth every penny,” the consultant wrote, “if we can get jurisdiction to EPA.”
After a lengthy court battle, a judge ruled that the resident himself created a “deceptive video” designed to attract attention. The judge wrote: “This demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning.”
Of course, you literally wouldn’t know any of this from reading Associated Press reporter Ramit Plushnicik-Masti’s most recent assessment of the Parker County case – a story that appears to have been designed from the very beginning to ignore the validity of the endangerment order itself, and instead weave a narrative of industry manipulation of the regulatory process.
For context, here’s Plushnick-Masti’s point of view:
At first, the Environmental Protection Agency believed the situation was so serious that it issued a rare emergency order in late 2010 that said at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane. More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate and refused to explain why.
Now a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with company representatives show that the EPA had scientific evidence against the driller, Range Resources, but changed course after the company threatened not to cooperate with a national study into a common form of drilling called hydraulic fracturing. Regulators set aside an analysis that concluded the drilling could have been to blame for the contamination.
So it’s pretty clear that this AP story hinges entirely on the validity of that supposed “scientific evidence” linking Range Resources’ operations to water contamination. Unfortunately for the AP, that “confidential report” was authored by Geoffrey Thyne, a known quantity in the world of poorly-written – and anti-industry – “scientific” papers.
Most notable was Thyne’s 2009 research in Colorado, which attempted to link natural gas development with degradation of water quality (anyone noticing a trend here?) in Garfield County. Thyne claimed that chloride and methane concentrations in groundwater were increasing as the number of gas wells increased, suggesting a causal link between the two. But in research presented to Colorado regulators, the Bill Barrett Corp. pointed out that those compounds were not actually increasing over time, based on actual data.
Thyne’s other observation was that the only source for the methane and most of the chloride was the formation into which the gas wells were drilled – the Williams Fork. But Bill Barrett analysis patiently explained that the Wasatch Formation contained elevated chloride levels prior to the start of drilling, as well as thermogenic methane. In response to Thyne’s report, Colorado regulators even noted that one “cannot ignore alternate mechanisms that explain the observations.”
Finally, Bill Barrett Corp. explained that the methane detected in groundwater didn’t match the fingerprint of methane from the producing formation – the final nail in the coffin to Thyne’s thesis.
Of course, this is also the same Geoffrey Thyne who claimed that the Colorado School of Mines threatened to fire him based solely on his opinions of hydraulic fracturing research and regulation. CSM pointed out that “no one in the Mines administration recalls having anything but cordial conversations” with Thyne, but CSM officials did contact Thyne to remind him that he needs to be clear that his opinions are his and not necessarily those of the school for which he works (his comments on the subject to NPR, for example, were not bracketed with any such disclaimer). Thyne has also done work for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), a program of the anti-development group Earthworks that receives funding from the Park Foundation. Remember them?
Once again, none of this would have been known from reading the AP’s latest story, even though the validity of Thyne’s research is the basis for the entire piece.
After ignoring the fundamental flaws with the endangerment order itself, and Dr. Thyne’s questionable history of dubious research and association with anti-drilling groups, the AP makes the stunning claim that Range refused to participate in EPA’s ongoing hydraulic fracturing study based upon the Agency’s continued prosecution of the endangerment order. That, according to Plushnick-Masti, served essentially as a bullying tactic, and the EPA thus decided to ignore the “scientific evidence” provided by Dr. Thyne and rescind the order.
What the AP refuses to acknowledge, though, is the mountain of scientific and peer-reviewed evidence showing that Range’s activities were not responsible for the methane found in the water wells, and thus Plushnick-Masti ignores even the possibility that EPA rescinded its order based on credible scientific findings.
That includes data submitted directly to the EPA – which E&E News’ Mike Soraghan recently obtained in a FOIA request – showing water quality in the affected wells was consistent with historical trends. That data also showed methane at a concentration half that of what would be considered an “action level.” Even Duke University’s Rob Jackson – whom the AP cited as an “expert reviewer” for the Parker Co. story – said the readings “are not dangerous levels.”
And what about all of the data presented at that January 2011 meeting with the Texas Railroad Commission (the entity in Texas that regulates oil and gas development) – the same meeting that the EPA, having been invited to present its evidence, flat out refused even to attend?
Those of us who have followed this case for more than a couple of days will remember that it was this meeting where experts showed conclusively that nitrogen fingerprinting of methane – a detail the EPA completely ignored in its analysis, by the way – proved that the gas was coming from the Strawn Formation, not the Barnett Shale, and thus not due to Range’s activities. Research from Collier Consulting from way back in December 2003 even identified a significant presence of Strawn-based methane in the region’s water wells – long before Range arrived on the scene.
But again, if you willfully ignored the details and validity of the actual endangerment order – which the AP piece quite clearly did – then that sort of evidence isn’t really important. For those interested in understanding why the case against Range was scientifically bankrupt from the very beginning, however – an audience that likely includes many if not most of AP’s actual readers – information showing a lack of cause for the EPA’s order in the first place would be considered quite relevant.
On a concluding note, and perhaps indicative of the intent of the story itself, this particular line from AP’s Plushnick-Masti stood out:
The method [hydraulic fracturing] has contributed to a surge in natural gas drilling nationwide, but environmental activists and some scientists believe it can contaminate groundwater. The industry insists the practice is safe.
Just the industry insists it is safe? We know that’s not the case, as federal officials, independent experts and state regulators have affirmed time and again. But what’s more notable is that the standard Associated Press description includes mention of regulators’ opinions, probably because the AP typically has an interest in accuracy.
Take, for instance, this AP story from January 11th, which states: “Regulators contend that water and air pollution problems are rare…”
Or this AP story from January 6th: “The industry and many federal and state officials say fracking is safe when done properly…”
Or this AP story from November 27, 2012: “Regulators nonetheless contend that overall, water and air pollution problems related to fracking are rare…”
Or this AP story from November 8, 2012: “Regulators contend that overall, water and air pollution problems related to gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing are rare…”
Or this AP story from October 14, 2012: “The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly…”
Spurning the publication’s own established and well-vetted characterization, Plushnick-Masti chose to suggest only “the industry insists” hydraulic fracturing is safe. That’s hardly an accurate characterization, but given the rest of the story, I guess that’s just par for the course.
Key Concessions You’ll Never Hear About in New TEDX Air Report
When you add up the TEDX paper’s flaws, it’s hard to see what scientific purpose it serves. It includes air quality measurements, but makes no connection between those measurements and nearby wellsites. Those measurements also show air quality levels are safe. The rest of the paper is mostly unsupported opinion and speculation from a group with a clear agenda against natural gas development.
No doubt concerned about recent reports linking increased natural gas consumption in the United States to falling greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a rash of stories highlighting industry efforts to convert rigs and other wellsite equipment over to natural gas – reducing emissions even further – anti-shale activists have been working hard to score some press coverage for a new paper about natural gas development and air. The report, available here, was produced by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a Colorado-based group led by Theo Colborn, one of the stars of Josh Fox’s anti-industry film Gasland.
TEDX says it took air quality samples near a newly developed natural gas pad in western Colorado, reviewed the results, and determined the “human and environmental health impacts … should be examined further given that the natural gas industry is now operating in close proximity to human residences and public lands.” For the activists, this is just the latest evidence that oil and gas development, and especially hydraulic fracturing, poses an unacceptable risk to public health, and thus should be stopped.
Of course, in reality, the paper doesn’t actually say that – and provides no evidence in support of that case. Instead, the paper cleverly presents opinion and speculation in a way that, the authors hope, will bait news reporters into writing scary-sounding stories about the industry. Here are the details:
No connection to gas wells
Starting with the title, and throughout the paper, the authors insinuate that natural gas wells are responsible for what they found in their air quality samples. But then they make the following admission:
“The chemicals reported in this exploratory study cannot, however, be causally connected to natural gas operations.” p. 8
Strangely, the authors don’t bother to explain why a study about air quality near natural gas operations failed to connect air quality with natural gas operations. Perhaps they wanted to avoid a detailed discussion about why only two days of “baseline” samples were taken, and why an inadequate baseline could result in natural gas wells being blamed for pollution that actually came from other sources, including Interstate-70, located just 1.1 miles away.
If this methodology sounds familiar, that’s because the authors of another highly criticized paper on gas wells in western Colorado also decided the best location to sample was less than a mile from I-70, so exhaust fumes from thousands of cars and trucks could be blamed instead on natural gas development. Blaming gas wells for tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks was also the modus operandi of another Gasland star, Al Armendariz, the author of a discredited 2009 paper that claimed emissions from oil and gas development in the Dallas Fort-Worth area were higher than emissions from all the region’s motor vehicles. Armendariz later became the U.S. EPA’s Region 6 Administrator, and then resigned in April 2012 after he was caught on camera saying his philosophy as a regulator was to “crucify” natural gas operators. He now works for an activist group, the Sierra Club, that wants to eliminate the oil and gas industry.
Safe air quality readings
After conceding that the TEDX paper makes no connection between natural gas wells and air quality, the authors make another admission:
“The concentrations at which these chemicals were detected in the air are far less than U.S. government safety standards…” p. 11
So, a study about air quality near natural gas operations also failed to find any violations of air quality standards. Instead, the authors just argue that in their opinion, they don’t believe those government standards are good enough. In fact, the authors provide no evidence of actual health impacts tied to the gas wells they studied, and their only source for challenging those government safety standards is another paper co-written by Theo Colborn, which doesn’t have anything to do with natural gas development.
Since this paper presents no evidence of unsafe air quality readings that can be blamed on natural gas wells, it’s conclusions really come down to the opinions of the authors and their employer, TEDX. A quick tour of the TEDX website shows those opinions are more ideological than scientific:
“All meaningful environmental oversight and regulation of the natural gas production was removed by the executive branch and Congress … [T]he gas industry is steamrolling over vast land segments in the West. … From the air it appears as a spreading, cancer-like network of dirt roads over vast acreage, contributing to desertification.”
So, TEDX is an organization that has a very negative opinion of the industry, and even advertises this anti-industry bias on its website. No wonder the authors of the TEDX paper were undaunted by the lack of evidence to support their insinuations: their minds were already made up.
It’s also worth noting that one of TDEX’s major benefactors, the New York Community Trust, also has some strong opinions on the subject. The NYCT currently funds a number of groups opposed to natural gas development, and according to the group’s website, it has given TEDX at least $425,000 since 2005. In April, NYCT said the following things about hydraulic fracturing and shale development while boasting about the money it had given to anti-industry lobbying groups:
“You’ve probably heard the horror stories from Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Texas about poisoned wells, sickened communities, and flammable tap water caused by horizontal hydraulic fracturing. … In other states, unknowing families drank and showered in this water and suffered a range of ailments, including permanent brain damage. … When you’re dealing with flammables, toxic chemicals, and drinking water for millions, the potential for disaster is great.”
So, the TEDX paper was written by a team of researchers who have already decided for themselves that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe, and one of their biggest funders also believes hydraulic fracturing is unsafe. Are we expected to believe that the conclusions of this paper were ever in doubt?
As for NYCT’s “horror stories,” let’s compare this panic-inducing rhetoric with the February 2012 congressional testimony of President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former U.S. Senator and Attorney General from Colorado who oversees oil and gas development on roughly 700 million acres of federal mineral estate:
“There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking, and you see that happening in many of the states. … My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”
Wrong on the basics
Besides the obvious anti-industry bias, the lead author of this paper – zoologist, former World Wildlife Fund employee and TEDX president Theo Colborn – is also just plain wrong about the regulatory safeguards in place designed to protect public health. According to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, which published a news item on the TEDX paper, Colborn believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “has been locked out of scrutiny of the oil and gas industry by the 2005 Clean Water Act exemptions enacted by the Bush administration.”
On the TEDX website, Colborn elaborates in a video presentation, which further claims the George W. Bush administration imposed “a moratorium on the use of federal environmental laws to regulate natural gas activity.”
Really? Let’s check those assertions against a report from the U.S. Department of Energy and the state-led Ground Water Protection Council, which was compiled during both the Bush and Obama administrations:
“The development and production of oil and gas in the U.S., including shale gas, are regulated under a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation. All of the laws, regulations, and permits that apply to conventional oil and gas exploration and production activities also apply to shale gas development.” p. ES-2
“A series of federal laws governs most environmental aspects of shale gas development. For example, the Clean Water Act regulates surface discharges of water associated with shale gas drilling and production, as well as storm water runoff from production sites. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the underground injection of fluids from shale gas activities. The Clean Air Act limits air emissions from engines, gas processing equipment, and other sources associated with drilling and production. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that exploration and production on federal lands be thoroughly analyzed for environmental impacts.” p. ES-3
When the lead author of the TEDX paper makes statements about natural gas regulation that are so completely at odds with what federal and state regulators have been saying for years, it undermines TEDX’s credibility and makes it clear that that ideology, rather than evidence, is driving the group’s research.
Playing to the media
When you add up the TEDX paper’s flaws, it’s hard to see what scientific purpose it serves. It includes air quality measurements, but makes no connection between those measurements and nearby wellsites. Those measurements also show air quality levels are safe. The rest of the paper is mostly unsupported opinion and speculation from a group with a clear agenda against development.
So what’s the real motive behind TEDX’s “research” agenda, and who is the real audience for its work? Theo Colborn herself made that pretty clear in March while speaking at an event hosted by another anti-industry activist group:
“Somehow, some way, we need to get drilling and all the other sources of the pollution into the headlines, along with fracking. We’ve got to work on the media on this.” (at 23:25)
Ask yourself – is that the voice of an objective, independent scientist, or someone who manufactures talking points for a PR campaign against domestic oil and gas production?
*UPDATE* Computer Models, Actual Data, and Smog
A new study by Eduardo B. Olaguer of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) purports to show that emissions from oil and gas operations will prevent nearby metropolitan areas -- particularly Dallas-Fort Worth -- from meeting federal ozone standards. Fortunately for people in the Metroplex, empirical data shows that such a conclusion is simply unsupported by the facts.
UPDATE (11/5/2012, 12:02pm ET): A piece in the Austin American-Statesman also examines the flaws in Olaguer’s report, likening it to a person’s doctor suggesting he or she is suffering from health problems despite medical tests showing the opposite — all based on a computer simulation using actuarial data and medical histories. The author then asks, “Wouldn’t you want a second opinion from someone who knows the difference between a computer model and the real world?” The piece adds an important conclusion to the whole debate about supposed smog-impacts from any process: “Citizens legitimately concerned about healthy air should ask for the real-world facts — facts more accurately revealed by monitored measurement of ambient conditions.”
—Original post, September 5, 2012—
A new study by Eduardo B. Olaguer of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) purports to show that emissions from oil and gas operations will prevent nearby metropolitan areas — particularly Dallas-Fort Worth — from meeting federal ozone standards. Fortunately for people in the Metroplex, empirical data shows that such a conclusion is simply unsupported by the facts.
It’s worth noting, however, that the “ozone/smog issue” is a central plank in the anti-shale crowd’s agenda (part of its gradual shift of emphasis toward air quality). It began in earnest when Al “crucify them” Armendariz released a report in 2009 alleging that emissions of ozone precursors from oil and gas operations in the Barnett Shale were more than twice those emanating from mobile sources (i.e. cars and trucks). Given Dallas-Fort Worth’s well-known air quality problems, the study was cited far and wide.
The problem with Armendariz’s study — and other recent research suggesting harmful emissions from shale development — is that it relied on a modeling exercise that extrapolated an outlier of data into a broader trend. Proof of that has come from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which has used state-of-the-art air quality monitors in the region to conclude not only that emissions from mobile sources are a larger contributor to smog, but that oil and gas operations have a minimal-at-worst impact (more on that below).
Against that backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the HARC study — distributed to the press by none other than Downwinders at Risk, one of the most vocal anti-drilling organizations in the area — relied on modeling in lieu of observable data to reach its conclusions, which were wholly predictable based upon the report’s stated objectives.
Below is just a sampling of the errors and oversights found in the HARC study.
Olaguer: “We used a neighborhood scale (200 m horizontal resolution) three-dimensional (3D) air dispersion model with an appropriate chemical mechanism to simulate ozone formation in the vicinity of a hypothetical natural gas processing facility, based on accepted estimates of both regular and nonroutine emissions.” (HARC study, p. 966; emphasis added)
FACT: To summarize, the author himself has described this report as a modeling exercise that simulates ozone formation from a hypothetical facility. It’s not data collected from actual air monitors, nor is it an analysis of existing infrastructure — exactly the kind of work that state regulators, most notably TCEQ, have been doing for years. In fact, available data from TCEQ directly rebuts claims about high emissions levels from oil and gas activity in the Barnett Shale. Here’s what TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw said about DFW area emissions:
“After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.” (emphasis added)
This kind of definitive conclusion is probably why opponents have to rely on hypotheticals and modeling exercises; reality simply doesn’t support their thesis.
Olaguer: “Using these methods, Armendariz (2009) estimated peak summer emissions of ozone precursors in 2009 from all oil and gas sources in the Barnett Shale to be 307 tons per day (tpd). By comparison, he estimated on-road mobile emissions from the five counties in the DFW ozone nonattainment area with significant oil and gas production in 2009 to be 121 tpd.” (HARC study, p. 967)
FACT: If the name Armendariz sounds familiar, it should. But it’s also worth noting that it was Armendariz’s study that gave anti-drilling activists a self-proclaimed license to claim Barnett Shale development is worse for DFW area ozone than all the cars and trucks on the road. The only problem, of course, is that air sampling data debunked his modeled scenario.
TCEQ data shows quite clearly that emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from oil and gas operations are considerably less than those from mobile sources. In fact, VOCs — which Armendariz and others continue to emphasize — aren’t even the proper focus in assessing ozone formation. Instead, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) are a much more significant source, and TCEQ has found that NOx emissions from mobile sources are “approximately 15 times higher” than those from oil and gas development.
As the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council (BSEEC) has pointed out: “Even if all man-made VOCs were eliminated in this region, there are more than enough naturally occurring VOCs from trees, plants and other organic sources to combine with NOx to cause smog.”
To be fair, Olaguer listed Armendariz’s paper in the context of other available research on this subject. But he also neglected to mention what TCEQ — through actual air monitors — has determined with respect to smog precursors in the region, and how that real-world data rebuts Armendariz’s computer model. Whether deliberate or accidental, that’s an omission that unfortunately speaks volumes.
Olaguer: “Figure 1 shows 1-hr ambient monitoring data collected at a pipeline compressor station in Lake Arlington, Fort Worth, during the BSEEC study. Note the very large short-term concentrations of formaldehyde (HCHO) approaching or exceeding 100 ppb around the site. Such large concentrations may be cause for concern, not only because of short-term health impacts such as nosebleeds, vomiting, and skin irritation, but also because of formaldehyde’s capacity to release radicals and thus contribute to rapid ozone formation (Olaguer et al., 2009).” (HARC study, p. 967; emphasis added)
FACT: Large concentrations of formaldehyde could indeed be cause for concern, so let’s see what the above-mentioned study (conducted by TITAN Engineering) actually said about those HCHO concentrations:
“Formaldehyde concentrations exceeded the short-term AMCV in several samples at the Lake Arlington compressor station. TITAN determined that formaldehyde at this site originated from off-site sources.” (emphasis added)
This is important for a couple of reasons. First, Olaguer is clearly misrepresenting the findings in that study by suggesting the concentrations are from the compressor station analyzed, even though the authors of the study came to a completely different conclusion. Second, Olaguer concludes his paper by saying the oil and gas industry needs more regulation, including the “control of formaldehyde emissions” (HARC study, p. 976). In other words, based partially upon a clear misreading of a separate study, Olaguer is trying to make the case for costly new regulations — hardly the kind of sound scientific basis that should guide policymakers (take note, Dallas City Hall).
Olaguer: The author states the study set out to answer a series of questions, including: “How far from the source are significant ozone impacts likely to be seen?” (HARC study, p. 968; emphasis added)
FACT: It’s probably not a great idea to use leading questions to guide your research — unless, perhaps, you’ve already determined what the answers are before you conduct the study. For example, Olaguer asks “how far” away from the source will “significant” impacts be seen, instead of asking the obvious question: “Are there significant ozone impacts from oil and gas activities?” Clearly, Olaguer had already decided what the answer to that question would be, and his decision clearly did not mesh with what the available data actually show. So, instead of even trying to explain that away, he simply leaped from hypothesis to supposition.
Olaguer: “To answer these questions, we conducted a schematic modeling exercise that was not intended to implicate any actual operational facility, but only to provide reasonable quantitative bounds.” (HARC study, p. 968; emphasis added)
FACT: The language above says it all — this isn’t an assessment of what’s actually in the field, and it’s certainly not an aggregation of real-world data. And yet, Downwinders at Risk director Jim Schermbeck said the report is “proof” that industry facilities are improperly managed, and that “our air is not getting cleaner because gas pollution is still under-regulated.” Again, it’s a hypothetical situation shaped by carefully constructed inputs in a computer model…which is fitting, because that’s perhaps the only realm where opponents can possibly validate their claims.
Olaguer: “Given the possible impact of large single facilities, it is all the more conceivable that aggregations of oil and gas sites may act in concert so that they contribute several parts per billion to 8-hr ozone during actual exceedances.” (HARC study, p. 976; emphasis added)
FACT: In addition to the lack of definitive conclusions about actual air quality — to be expected from a modeling exercise — data from the past few years actually contradicts Olaguer’s “maybe, possibly” conclusion. For example, here’s a graph showing 8-hour ozone levels in the Dallas-Fort Worth area between 1999 and 2009, along with the substantial increase in natural gas production.
If natural gas production were a significant contributor to area ozone — which the HARC paper tried to establish essentially by decree — then ozone concentrations would increase along with an expansion in natural gas production. But that’s simply not what the data show — inconvenient as that may be for those claiming otherwise.
Olaguer: “Our findings suggest that improved regulation of the upstream oil and gas industry in nonattainment areas should include reporting of emission events, and more aggressive deployment of control strategies, such as vapor recovery to avoid flaring, and the use of oxidation catalysts on stationary engines.” (HARC study, p. 976; emphasis added)
FACT: It’s well known that natural gas in much of the Barnett Shale — especially in Dallas County — is what’s known as “dry gas” since it contains little if any associated liquids. Mandating the use of vapor recovery technology on gas that isn’t producing vapor reflects a poor understanding of the subject matter itself. Even if liquids were present, strict regulations are in place for the Barnett Shale (details can be found here) that mandate the use of vapor-recovery systems.
As Ed Ireland from BSEEC has noted:
“[M]ost of the natural gas produced in and around the 9‐county DFW NAA [non-attainment area] is very “dry” gas. The reason, geophysicists say, is that this part of the Barnett Shale is “thermally mature”, meaning that these natural gas wells produce no associated oil or other liquids. This means that the vast majority of Barnett Shale wells in the 9‐county DFW NAA do not require tanks for condensate storage. Little or no VOC is emitted from these gas wells.”
Olaguer said that his findings constitute “a severe challenge to oil and gas producers in the DFW area,” and Downwinders at Risk said the Dallas city council specifically “has a chance to react positively to this new evidence.” But what does it say that at least one of the recommendations behind those claims is something that literally makes no sense for Dallas County?
Some might argue that TCEQ is only one source of information, so there’s plenty of room for additional research. That’s certainly a valid point. But in the absence of other meaningful assessments that rely on empirical data instead of computers models, TCEQ’s findings have to be seen as the benchmark.
It’s also worth stressing that this isn’t meant to demonize the use of computer models in research. Indeed, when gaps in available data exist for a given subject, modeling exercises can play an important role in estimating impacts (or the lack thereof). But in this case, that data actually do exist, and it’s unfortunate that people choose to believe hypothetical emissions estimates are more valid than easily-accessible readings from actual air monitors.
*UPDATE* EPA’s About-Face in Parker County
Fifteen months removed from EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz’s email to local anti-shale activists imploring them to “Tivo channel 8” so they didn’t miss his big announcement targeting Range Resources in Texas, EPA’s statement this afternoon that it has withdrawn its “imminent and substantial endangerment” order is certainly good news for the company -- and even better news for residents in and around Parker Co. who had been (mis)led to believe by their government that local natural gas development had put their water at risk.
UPDATE (Mar. 31, 2012; 7:55 a.m. ET): Lots of solid news reports generated overnight following up on the news of EPA’s reversal yesterday. But one piece in particular — by Daniel Gilbert and Russell Gold of WSJ — really ties it all together and explains why it matters. From the story: “In addition to dropping the case in Texas, the EPA has agreed to substantial retesting of water in Wyoming after its methods were questioned. And in Pennsylvania, it has angered state officials by conducting its own analysis of well water—only to confirm the state’s finding that water once tainted by gas was safe. Taken together, some experts say, these misfires could hurt the agency’s credibility … ” Full story here.
Fifteen months removed from EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz’s email to local anti-shale activists imploring them to “Tivo channel 8” so they didn’t miss his big announcement targeting Range Resources in Texas, EPA’s statement this afternoon that it has withdrawn its “imminent and substantial endangerment” order is certainly good news for the company — and even better news for residents in and around Parker Co. who had been (mis)led to believe by their government that local natural gas development had put their water at risk.
The whole trove of documents from EPA and the U.S. Dept. of Justice is available here and here – along with a must-read statement from the Texas Railroad Commission, and another one here from the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. But while today’s filing finally puts an end to a case whose scientific foundation had cracked, then crumbled, then outright disintegrated many months before, it reignites the conversation about what’s become a troubling trend for EPA: Every time EPA intervenes in a high-profile case – generating scads of maligning headlines about shale and hydraulic fracturing in the process – the agency ends up getting it wrong.
Are we the only ones to notice that, having been to the plate now three separate times, EPA is currently batting .000 on these cases?
By now, of course, the list of places in which EPA has decided to intercede over the past two years – each time under “emergency” orders necessary to prevent “imminent danger” – needs no introduction. In Pavillion, Wyo., EPA’s intervention came at the request of two local activists who appeared in Gasland, helping produce a draft report that attempted to link hydraulic fracturing to the contamination of groundwater.
Later, the agency was forced to admit its testing and data gathering procedures were flawed — a pretty safe assumption, given that benzene had been detected in distilled water samples that had never even left the lab. Earlier this month, EPA finally came to terms with the implications of its rush to judgment, announcing its plan to suspend the already-in-progress comment period and go back into the field to sample more wells and collect more data. In other words, to go back and do in earnest the work it previously insisted it had already done.
And then there’s the case of Dimock, a town many anti-shale folks still can’t pronounce (dim-ick; not di-MOCK), but one that has nonetheless become a sort of Mecca for those committed to preventing the development of natural gas – not just there, but everywhere.
As it did in Pavillion, EPA invoked its bank-shot authority under Superfund to push aside Pennsylvania regulators in favor of conducting its own investigation, pronouncing the town’s water safe at first only to reverse that position five weeks later despite not having seen, asked for or reviewed a single shred of new data. Thankfully, EPA reversed its reversal earlier this month, sending an email to Dimock residents indicating that nothing in their water posed a serious risk to human health. More interested in protecting the media hook of Dimock than the actual water, most activists have simply chosen to pretend the new EPA test results don’t exist.
Which finally leads us back to Parker County – another EPA case doomed from the start by bad science (it took most experts about two hours to finger the Strawn Formation as the actual culprit), but one that got a lot more interesting once hundreds of pages of deposition transcripts and FOIA’d emails made their way onto the scene. The picture that emerges from those missives and epistles is, to put it mildly, a troubling one – including clear collusion on the part of activists and regulators to target a company and threaten it with millions of dollars in fines purely for the purpose of manufacturing a talking point against hydraulic fracturing. Think we’re overstating the case? Take a look at the emails yourself, and be sure to read through Alisa Rich’s transcript while you’re at it.
It’s often said in Washington (and elsewhere) that the best way to minimize the impact of a bad story is to let it fly on a Friday afternoon. Today’s announcement by EPA, notwithstanding the timing of its release, is actually the opposite of bad news: it’s good news (or at least it should be), and indeed, tremendous news for residents who had been left to wonder over the past 15 months whether local oil and gas development was having a deleterious impact on their water.
As a spokesman for Range put it to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today: “It’s important for people to know that their environment, health and safety is protected and hopefully this provides them with that comfort.” Here’s something that might provide even more comfort: Confidence that EPA will conduct itself and its investigations in a manner in which science — and not politics — informs, directs and renders uncompromisable each and every step of its research and decision-making process. We’re not quite there yet, unfortunately. But hopefully with today’s announcement and others like it, we’re closer now than we were before.
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Activists manufacture “deceptive” video in Parker Co. to mislead press
- Deposition transcripts: EPA / Alisa Rich / Lipsky / Armendariz emails / Rich emails
- NYT/E&E News: Texas EPA official bragged about slapping sanction on driller
- Picture: Anti-shale activist Sharon Wilson, orchestrator of Parker Co. order, together with Al Armendariz