Putting to Rest the Silly Theories about Parker Co.
In recent weeks, several news outlets have attempted to rewrite the narrative about EPA’s December 2010 endangerment order against Range Resources in Parker County, Texas. The theories have run the gamut, from industry allegedly “pressuring” EPA to drop the order to the availability of “scientific analyses” that EPA supposedly discarded or ignored. What ties all of these theories together? They change literally nothing about the facts of the case, which show that Range’s operations were not responsible for water contamination in Parker County.
In recent weeks, several news outlets have attempted to rewrite the narrative about EPA’s December 2010 endangerment order against Range Resources in Parker County, Texas. The theories have run the gamut, from industry allegedly “pressuring” EPA to drop the order to the availability of “scientific analyses” that EPA supposedly discarded or ignored.
What ties all of these theories together? They change literally nothing about the facts of the case, which show that Range’s operations were not responsible for water contamination in Parker County.
The stories are based solely on “new information” about the case, which is unfortunately being conflated with “relevant information.” Nothing that has been uncovered changes the fact that there was a lack of scientific merit in EPA’s original order. Additionally, none of this “new information” provides a credible alternative to the scientific testing that exonerated Range’s activities. In some cases, the “new information” isn’t actually new at all, but rather a rehash of what regulators already examined and refuted based on the evidence.
Let’s explore these theories in depth, shall we?
THEORY: Range Resources pressured the EPA into dropping the endangerment order in exchange for granting the agency access to its wells.
- Associated Press: “Range Resources told EPA officials in Washington that so long as the agency continued to pursue a “scientifically baseless” action against the company in Weatherford, it would not take part in the study and would not allow government scientists onto its drilling sites, said company attorney David Poole.” (Jan. 16, 2013)
FACT: It’s difficult to get past the sheer ridiculousness of the claim itself, but several outlets have seen fit to advance this theory as if it is a credible explanation – including the venerable Associated Press – so let’s examine the facts.
As we’ve explained before, the crux of this argument is that the EPA wanted access to Range Resources’ well sites for its ongoing study on potential water impacts from hydraulic fracturing. (With thousands of companies able and willing to participate, why the EPA would be insistent on gaining access to Range’s is never explained by adherents to this theory.) Since the EPA was involved in a legal dispute with Range Resources over the endangerment order in Parker County, Tex., the theory contends that Range didn’t want to work with EPA while that dispute was ongoing, so they offered to cut a deal behind closed doors: EPA drops the order, and Range allows access to its wells.
First of all, notice how this theory assumes – by a priori means – that the original endangerment order was scientifically justified? Let’s look at why that’s absurd:
- We know, thanks to a mountain of evidence, that the source of natural gas in Steven Lipsky’s water wells was not the Barnett Shale (from which Range was producing), but was rather naturally occurring and originated from the shallower Strawn formation.
- A water analysis presented to state regulators in January 2011 – during a regulatory hearing to which the EPA was invited but refused to attend – used geochemical gas fingerprinting to trace the source of the gas to the Strawn. Gas from the Barnett is very similar in composition to gas from the Strawn formation, but the presence of nitrogen provides a distinguishing characteristic, which the geochemical fingerprinting analysis showed conclusively.
- According to EPA Region 6 official John Blevins, the EPA knew nitrogen was a distinguishing factor, but somehow failed to consider it. “It’s a factor, yes,” Blevins said, just before admitting: “I don’t believe that I could say EPA has an expert to opine on the nitrogen levels within any gas source.”
- We also know that naturally occurring methane in water wells was a well-known phenomenon in the region, another fact presented at the January 2011 hearing. The EPA also knew of this phenomenon, but agency officials “do not believe those facts were…germane or relevant to the issue at hand,” according to Blevins’ court-ordered deposition from early 2011.
These facts – convenient omissions by the EPA, scientific tests exonerating Range – would conceivably undermine the case that EPA had against Range, and yet they get little to no attention in the reports suggesting Range pressured EPA to drop the case. Why let facts get in the way of a great story?
Second, for this theory to be plausible, the EPA would have had to seek access relatively quickly after the order was withdrawn. After all, if this were a quid pro quo, wouldn’t you expect each party to at least try to get what the other promised? Instead, all we have is a letter from Range Resources, sent after the endangerment order was dropped, saying it can work with the EPA again. Is it really so alarming that a company, after recognizing that a government agency — with which it is involved in a legal dispute — has changed its policies to focus on sound science, would embrace the idea of working with that agency in the future?
And nearly a year later, guess what? The EPA has not taken up Range on its offer of access to its wells.
Legal disputes, regardless of the industry, typically involve a variety of negotiations along the way. Both parties have an interest in justifying their actions, but they often see little value in a costly and prolonged affair. But the bottom line, regardless of the circumstances or details of those discussions, is that if the EPA were so motivated by a give-and-take backroom negotiation, it wouldn’t wait a year or even several months before trying to get its end of the “deal.”
And remember, the EPA tried to justify its order on the basis that “there were at least two families whose homes were in immediate danger of explosion and who had no safe household water from the aquifer.”
Would the EPA really toss aside something it viewed as protective of public safety just to gain access to a few well sites – which, of course, it never tried to access anyway? There are literally thousands of companies with whom the EPA could work on its study, but we are to believe the agency absolutely had to gain access to Range’s sites?
The agency did not do that, because the theory is as baseless as the endangerment order itself.
THEORY: A previously unreleased study suggests Range Resources was responsible for methane in Parker County water wells.
- Associated Press: “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…” (Jan. 16, 2013)
FACT: This “scientific evidence” was actually little more than a draft report that did not even credibly examine the possibility that the gas could have come from other formations. It was also authored by someone unfamiliar with the scientific analyses delivered to the Texas Railroad Commission that exonerated Range.
The draft report, authored by Geoffrey Thyne, looked essentially only at the possibility that the gas could be originating from the Barnett Shale – one of many facts left out of the AP story that first highlighted it. As explained earlier, the composition of gas from the Barnett is similar to what’s in the Strawn, so if you’re looking only at gas in the Barnett and the methane found in the affected wells, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. This is why it’s crucial to look at multiple formations in the region, and closely examine distinguishing features like the presence of nitrogen. That’s what the scientists did in the reports that exonerated Range, but it’s not what Dr. Thyne (or the EPA) did.
Thyne’s report relied on hydrogen and carbon isotopic fingerprinting to suggest that Range’s activities in the Barnett Shale were impacting Lipsky’s water, because the isotopic readings in the water well were similar to what is encountered in the Barnett Shale. But as geochemist Mark McCaffrey (B.A., Harvard; Ph.D., MIT) of Weatherford Labs determined in his investigation:
“The geochemical parameter used by the EPA to determine a thermogenic origin of the Lipsky gas (e.g., the C isotopic composition of methane) does not differentiate gas in the Barnett Formation from gas in the Pennsylvanian reservoirs.” (emphasis added)
In other words, carbon isotopic fingerprinting (which Thyne used) will not correctly determine the source of the gas; instead, nitrogen content must be used to distinguish between Barnett gas and shallower (Pennsylvanian) formation gases.
As Dr. McCaffrey noted during the January 2011 Railroad Commission hearing:
“Specifically high nitrogen, low CO2 samples are characteristic of gasses produced from the shallower Pennsylvanian reservoirs. The natural gas component of the most recently collected Lipsky well headspace gas samples, which is the two that were shown in the previous table on the previous slide, contain higher nitrogen than is in Barnett gas.”
Interestingly, Thyne’s draft paper found that Barnett gas “has low nitrogen content of about 1%,” whereas the impacted water wells had nitrogen readings “between 4 and 31%.” Although Thyne was relying more on the carbon isotopic readings (which was a flawed model), even his tests showed that the nitrogen content in Lipsky’s water wells was at least four times higher than Barnett gas.
Given the centrality of nitrogen fingerprinting in determining the source, one could even suggest that Thyne’s findings validated the reports that exonerated Range – albeit unintentionally.
After examining all of the evidence in the case, in early 2011, the Texas Railroad Commission concluded:
“The EPA’s investigation compared gas produced from the tubing of the Butler well (Barnett Shale gas) to gas found in the Lipsky water well. The carbon isotopic finger print analysis of the gases were found to be very similar and both gases were determined to be thermogenic. Range demonstrated that use of the carbon isotope in the EPA analysis was inappropriate because the Barnett Shale is the source rock for all gas bearing zones above the Barnett Shale, including the much shallower Strawn formation. All gas produced from the same source rock would be expected to have a similar carbon isotope. The EPA did not attempt to identify any other potential source of the gas produced from the Lipsky well. Range further showed the appropriate geochemical parameters to use for fingerprinting in this case are nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Published literature confirms that Pennsylvanian age gases, including the Strawn, have higher nitrogen and lower carbon dioxide than Barnett Shale gas.
“…The fingerprinting analysis performed by Range demonstrates that gas found in all of the water wells had elevated nitrogen concentrations, indicating Pennsylvanian gas, not Barnett Shale gas. Additionally, gas produced from the Barnett Shale in the Butler and Teal wells contained no microbial gas, but the bradenhead samples from each well did contain microbial gas. These differentials confirm that the Barnett Shale is not in communication with any other zone, including the much shallower Strawn.” (emphasis added)
Finally, it’s worth noting that Thyne’s draft report – by the author’s own admission – was assembled without any knowledge of the scientific tests using nitrogen as the distinguishing characteristic (see Range Resources’ letter to EPA Region 6 administrator Ron Curry for more details). Given how science builds upon prior research, a lack of knowledge of what was essentially the most definitive scientific analysis of the affected wells to date is a significant and newsworthy fact.
It’s unfortunate that every recent report has failed even to consider this fundamental flaw, in addition to the other failings described above.
THEORY: A former employee of the Texas Railroad Commission found that Range’s activities forced Strawn gas into Steven Lipsky’s water well.
- E&E News: “Thomas ‘Buddy’ Richter, hired by attorneys for one of the homeowners, said that state inspectors had found a leak and that Range failed to seal its well bore with cement deeply enough to protect the neighbors’ underground water supplies. Richter, a petroleum engineer, said other companies drilling shale in the area sealed their wells significantly deeper.” (Feb. 20, 2013)
FACT: Richter’s theory is absurd – based not only on the facts about Range’s activities, but also what Richter previously said about the case. (This latest “news,” by the way, is also just a retread of the same theory that was reported on more than a year ago.)
On November 9, 2011, Richter testified that he was aware of other water wells in close proximity to Steven Lipsky’s, all of which contained naturally occurring methane – one that had so much that it was actually flaring gas in 2005. Yet, he also admitted that he had seen no baseline data regarding the presence of methane in the Lipsky’s well prior to Range’s activities:
Q: Have you made any study about whether there was actually methane in the Lipsky water well as far back as 2005, in some amount?
RICHTER: I haven’t made such a study.
Q: You don’t have any water tests or head space gas tests from the Lipsky water well going back prior to 2010 that you’ve seen, correct?
RICHTER: I have not seen any such data.
Q: As you sit here today, you don’t know for a fact whether or not the Lipsky water well had any amount of methane in it prior to 2010, do you?
RICHTER: I do not know that as a fact because I have seen no data.
So, despite the prevalence of naturally occurring methane in virtually every other well in the region (a fact confirmed by Railroad Commission findings), Richter wants us to believe that the methane in Lipsky’s water is there because of Range’s activities – even though he has “no data” on what Lipsky’s water contained in the past. Was there methane in Lipsky’s water before Range drilled its wells, just like the dozens of other water wells in the area? Richter doesn’t know.
Richter further speculates that by drilling through the Strawn formation (before reaching the Barnett), Range Resources “possibly” created a pathway by which gas in formations between the Strawn and the Barnett, which could then travel up the annulus of the well and through thick drilling mud. After accomplishing that feat, according to Richter’s analysis, the gas would have had to exit the annulus and enter the Strawn formation, then create such significant new pressure in an underground rock layer that the gas already located in the Strawn formation was pushed toward the Lipsky’s property a half mile away. En route, somehow the gas also bypassed every other water well located between Range’s wells and Lipsky’s water well, and only impacted Lipsky’s well.
And what ultimately created this chain of highly unlikely events? According to Richter, Range Resources did not case and cement the well below the water aquifer, and thus Range did not comply with the state law (known as “Rule 13”) for setting surface casing.
The only problem with that? State regulators said Range was in compliance with Rule 13 for both of its wells – which Richter himself admitted in his deposition.
According to his testimony, Richter acknowledged that official state documents showed Range’s wells were in compliance (see p. 59-60). But he contends that Range was actually not in compliance because the wells were not cemented below the base of the formation containing groundwater (Cretaceous), which supplies water to Lipsky’s well. Richter alleges regulators were wrong to declare Range’s wells in compliance because the base of the water aquifer was actually deeper than official records stated.
Yet in his deposition, Richter admitted that, in Parker County, the distance between the surface and the base of the Cretaceous can vary, and he wasn’t even sure what the depth was. “I don’t know what the various elevations are,” Richter testified (p. 63).
In other words, Richter admits that regulators found the company in compliance with Rule 13, and the only basis for his disagreement is pure speculation about what the depth of the groundwater formation may or may not be.
But wait, there’s more.
According to E&E News, Richter says the Texas Railroad Commission determined Range was not at fault without even considering other arguments:
“Richter also noted the Railroad Commission made its decision based on information presented by Range, which went unchallenged at the hearing. That essentially made it a default judgment. Since it was an ‘unprotested’ case, Richter said, the agency assigns the decision less value than it would to a ‘protested’ case.”
From later in that same story: “But Range drilled through other gas-producing formations on its way to the mile-deep Barnett, and [Richter] said the commission didn’t account for that.”
First of all, remember: The EPA was invited to that hearing and refused to attend. Interestingly, the EPA even tried to prevent Range from gathering testimony on why the EPA issued its order, but a court thankfully denied the EPA’s request. If EPA had a credible scientific argument, it certainly could have presented it at the Railroad Commission hearing to which it was invited – and it wouldn’t have tried to squelch the company from investigating the events that led to the order. In any event, the lack of EPA’s presence at the Commission hearing is not the Commission’s fault; if anything, it speaks volumes about the case the EPA actually had against Range, and reflects unwillingness on the part of EPA to defend its own position.
Second, and more importantly, the claim that Range’s evidence went unchallenged by the Railroad Commission is simply untrue. In fact, one of the arguments considered at the hearing was the exact same theory Richter now espouses, and it was raised by the none other than a representative from the Texas Railroad Commission.
At the hearing in January 2011, Range’s witnesses were cross-examined by an attorney, David Cooney, who represented the Railroad Commission’s Oil and Gas Division. Cooney asked John McBeath, a petroleum engineer and well integrity expert, whether “the actual surface casing [for Range’s wells] was through the base of usable quality water as the conditions occurred in the field.” McBeath’s response?
“That is right. The Cretaceous is protected by the surface casing and the cement.” (Hearing transcript, Vol. II; p. 25)
McBeath also testified that the base of the Cretaceous was 324 feet deep at the location of the two Range wells in question. According to official records, surface casing for each well was set at approximately 400 feet, which Richter also confirmed in his deposition (p. 258).
This directly contradicts Richter’s theory that the wells (cased at around 400 feet by his own admission) were not cased deep enough to run past the base of the Cretaceous (depth: 324 feet). It also debunks his claim that the Railroad Commission failed to consider that possibility.
Indeed, according to the Railroad Commission’s determination after that hearing:
“Surface casing on both wells exceed the requirements of the TCEQ. Range’s experience in the area is that the Cretaceous generally extends to approximately 320 feet.”
The Commission added:
“The surface casing in each well is set below the base of the Cretaceous and is cemented to surface. The surface casings and production casings of both wells were tested when set during the drilling process. Further, Range performed a mechanical integrity test on the Butler well at the request of the RRC to demonstrate that the low bradenhead pressure on the well was not related to any type of casing problem. The cement behind the production casing is verified by a cement bond log in both wells.”
And yet despite all of this, we’re supposed to believe a guy when he says that Range’s wells weren’t cased and cemented deep enough to isolate themselves from the base of an aquifer, the depth of which he even admitted he did not know?
Finally, it’s worth noting that Richter’s theory is not that Barnett gas was reaching Lipsky’s water – as the EPA contended and Mr. Thyne’s draft report alleges – but rather gas from some other formation. This contradicts EPA’s John Blevins, who said the agency’s order was based on gas found in Lipsky’s water being “sufficiently similar to the gas that we found in the Butler [well] production stream.” The Butler well was producing natural gas from the Barnett Shale, which means EPA’s order was based on a supposed link between Barnett Shale gas and the gas found in Lipsky’s water.
And yet E&E News says Richter’s theories “make the most coherent case for EPA’s accusations,” a claim that by definition cannot be true.
EPA, Thyne, and Richter can’t all be right. In fact, the evidence shows that they’re all wrong. If Richter’s theories make “the most coherent case” for EPA’s actions, then the endangerment order was quite clearly baseless from the beginning.
In withdrawing the order against Range Resources, EPA never said that it was doing so based on a lack of scientific basis, even though anyone who has being paying attention knows that to be the case. Nor did the agency ever truly admit that the actions leading up to issuance of the order (including working closely with local activists) compromised the integrity of its actions.
But it’s also that refusal to admit the obvious that has created a vacuum, which has been filled with “alternate explanations” based on literally anything – regardless of its merits – that has since become public. As stories have come out, a consistent pattern of manufactured timelines also emerges, where intervening periods are selectively cast aside or punctuated in order to retroactively fit a particular narrative.
Range offered EPA access to its wells after the agency withdrew the order? Proof of industry pressure – even though nearly a year elapsed and the EPA never took them up on the offer.
A draft report that suggests a link between Range’s activities and methane contamination in water wells? Proof that Range was at fault – even though the report did little more than repeat EPA’s original argument, which was debunked by nitrogen fingerprinting at a hearing more than two years ago.
A former state employee who said his former agency didn’t consider an alternate theory? EPA’s case is validated – even though the agency did consider that theory back in 2011, and tossed it aside due to a preponderance of evidence proving otherwise.
What is interesting, however, is that in all of the recent reporting on this case — much of it derived from emails obtained in various FOIA requests to EPA — the most striking details were either buried or left unreported.
In an email sent more than a year after EPA issued its endangerment order against Range, then-administrator of EPA Region 6 Al Armendariz was still searching for data to validate EPA’s claims and even discussing the possibility that Range was not at fault. That’s notable in and of itself, but it’s even more significant when you consider what EPA scientist Dr. Doug Beak said about EPA’s data in November 2010, before the endangerment order was ever issued:
“[T]his is not conclusive evidence because of the limited data set…The only way now to compare the data would be to make assumptions to fill in data gaps and I don’t believe we have enough experience at this site or data to do this at this time.” (emphasis added)
So, prior to the issuance of the order, a geochemist within EPA had concluded there was a limited data set and not enough to make a connection to Range’s activities without filling in gaps based on “assumptions,” which he explicitly said the agency did not have the experience or data to do. More than a year later, the EPA was still looking for data to validate its case against Range Resources — which of course aligns with the concerns Dr. Beak raised in the weeks leading up to EPA’s order.
Shouldn’t EPA have had that data in hand before imposing a significant order of endangerment? If they didn’t have it, then on what was the order based? And why have a grand total of zero of the recent stories rehashing EPA’s endangerment order given this anything more than a passing mention?
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions about the events that transpired in Parker County in 2010. But if we’re interested in the truth, the facts should be what guide us – not the latest shiny object that can make for a great headline and increased site traffic.
It’s time to put an end to the silly theories and conspiracies. The facts speak for themselves.
*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.