EPA MIA In Austin

Agency’s credibility comes into question as basis for its “emergency order” against Range Resources continues to fall apart

Let’s start here. Imagine for a moment that you’ve been tasked with conducting a scientific analysis to determine the origination point for small volumes of methane detected in two private water wells in Parker Co., Texas. You would know the answer to that question is important – and perhaps even quite important, since the agency for which you work (EPA, in this case) has based nearly its entire case against an energy producer in North Texas on the assertion that the methane in those water wells came from natural gas wells drilled into the Barnett Shale.

In conducting this “isotopic” analysis, it’s likely you’d know that one of the most obvious ways to characterize and localize the methane in the water wells is to run a profile on the percentage of nitrogen found in the samples of natural gas. Through experience, you would know that methane in the Barnett has a relatively low percentage of nitrogen – often in the single digits. And you would also be aware that a much shallower rock formation known as the Strawn has a much higher percentage of the stuff, generally around 20 percent. Your task: Pin the presence of methane on a company called Range Resources — by conjuring up an analysis that proves Range’s wells in the Barnett (Range has no wells in the Strawn) are the source of the natural gas in the water wells.

On December 7, 2010, that’s precisely the argument that EPA put forth in issuing an unprecedented “emergency order” demanding that (among other things) Range abandon its wells in Parker Co. and go home – and order that Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz argued was necessary to prevent “houses” from “explode[ing],” even though EPA conceded the wells had been disconnected and out of service for months.

Just one problem: The isotopic analysis the agency used as the basis for that order doesn’t include a word about nitrogen. Believe it or not, those tests were never run. This morning’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the details:

Consultants for Range said their testing showed that the gas in the contaminated water well of Parker County resident Steven Lipsky contained substantial nitrogen, as does gas from the Strawn. Barnett Shale gas is low in nitrogen. “So nitrogen is the distinguishing fingerprint,” said Alan Kornacki, a senior petroleum systems analyst with Weatherford Laboratories in Houston. “High nitrogen content means the gas was produced from the Strawn.”

This is just one of the interesting revelations that emerged at a hearing of the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin today, notwithstanding EPA’s decision to both skip the proceedings in person and refuse to submit even a single page of information or testimony in support of its case. Of course, today’s proceedings weren’t the first time that EPA has pulled a bit of a disappearing act on this case. Back in December, Range officials made the trip over to EPA’s offices in Dallas to present their data to agency staff and counsel. The only guy missing from the meeting? Dr. Armendariz — the guy who issued the actual order.

Of course, that’s not to say the administrator or his agency don’t have an interest in acquiring the facts. Earlier this week, EPA issued a press release demanding that Range “study how the methane … may have migrated from the production wells.” But isn’t this exactly what the agency was supposed to study before issuing the order? Doesn’t this constitute the entire basis of its case? Put another way, if EPA didn’t then (and evidently doesn’t now) possess the answers to that basic question, how could it possibly argue (then or now) that Range is at fault?

The answer, of course, is that it can’t. With its nitrogen-less isotopic analysis now exposed for it is (and isn’t), the only card EPA has left to play is to argue the water wells in question only recently became contaminated with methane. Prove that, EPA’s thinking goes, and it may be able to pull off a circumstantial case establishing correlation between Range’s development of the Barnett and flammable garden hoses in Parker Co. But what if we told you that EPA hasn’t even been able to do that? This week’s edition of the Dallas Observer – and alternative arts paper, and certainly no shill for industry – has the goods:

Reached today, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella says they’ve done chemical analysis to match the chemicals in the water to a sediment formation that runs up against the well. What’s more, he says, they’ve gotten records of flaming wells and contamination in the area years before gas drilling began. … “Unless our rigs are time machines, there’s no way we could’ve been the cause,” he says.

Independent research assembled by Collier Consulting, Inc. in December 2003 and re-introduced in Austin today only serves to reinforce that point, providing a clear record of the various tests that were performed in the area more than eight years ago – tests that indicate a significant presence of Strawn-originating methane in wells long before Range arrived on the scene. Curiously, in a press release issued yesterday, EPA said it had “consult[ed] with various state authorities” before arriving at the conclusion that the methane in the water was a new development in Parker Co. Could it have been possible that this consultation didn’t include mention of the 2003 Collier report?

Whatever the case on that, it’s pretty clear EPA didn’t spend much time “consulting” with Bob Patterson of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District — someone who, it can be safely presumed, knows a thing or two about the quality, composition and history of groundwater in the area. On the question of the historical occurrence of methane in Parker County water wells, here’s what he told a Platts reporter earlier this month:

Patterson said methane gas had been found in water wells in that corner of northern Texas for a number of years before … Range began drilling gas wells there, targeting the Barnett Shale formation. “At least since the late ’60s or early ’70s there has been gas in a number of [water] wells in that area prior to development of the Barnett Shale,” Patterson said.

So then: If EPA can’t actually identify where the methane in question originated (since it refused to conduct a standard nitrogen test) and can’t prove the presence of methane in Parker Co. water wells is an entirely new phenomenon (see above) – then upon what basis can it possibly found its case? That’s the question to which Range itself would like an answer, which is why it recently asked the court for permission to gather additional information on the facts and factors that led to EPA’s actions on this matter.

But guess what? Earlier this week, EPA asked the court to deny Range the ability to acquire that testimony – a motion that was denied earlier this afternoon by U.S. district judge Lee Yeakel. Pursuant to that filing, Range will be granted time next week to ask EPA officials straightforward questions about what it believes, and then perhaps compare those answers to what the data actually say.

Once again, EPA could have begun the process of restoring its credibility on this issue by sending a staffer down Interstate 35 to participate in the Railroad Commission’s hearing in Austin today. Apparently, though, it had better things to do – like asking the Department of Justice to impose a $16,500-a-day fine on the company for failing to comply with an order that EPA itself has neither the interest nor ability to defend or explain in an open forum.

And take it from us: EPA missed a lively and informative set of proceedings today, with testimony and presentations delivered by a cavalcade of engineers, hydrogeologists and recognized experts – documents we plan to send around just as soon as we get our hands on them. For now, though, and especially for those who couldn’t make it out to Austin this afternoon, check out the EID Twitter feed for real-time updates on everything EPA missed this afternoon.


No Comments

Post A Comment