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.
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 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.