Texas Regulators Debunk Major Claim from ‘Ban Fracking’ Activists

A case of flammable water that anti-fracking groups have used to foment doubt about the safety of shale development was not due to oil and gas drilling, Texas state regulators concluded in a report released today. This marks the second time that regulators have investigated the case of methane in private water wells and found no link to drilling or fracking.

The Texas Railroad Commission investigated nine wells in the Silverado subdivision of Parker County, Tex., looking at well records, regulatory documents, and other data made public since 2011, when the Railroad Commission first investigated complaints of methane in the region’s groundwater. Importantly, in the report released today, the Railroad Commission concluded that many of the landowners’ water wells had unfortunately been drilled into gas bearing zones, at least partially explaining the high levels of methane.

“Based on this information,” the Railroad Commission concluded, “it appears that the complainants’ water wells either penetrate into or beneath the transitional zone that separates the Cretaceous Twin Mountains Aquifer and the underlying Pennsylvania Strawn formation, with the exception of Well No. 8A which was set at a total depth of 120 feet and Well No. 11 for which water well construction information was not available.”

The Commission added:

“The occurrence of natural gas in the complainants’ water wells may be attributed to natural migration of gas from the shallow Strawn Formation, exacerbated by water well construction practices whereby some water wells have penetrated ‘red beds’ in the transition interval between the aquifer and the Strawn Formation. Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence…” (p. 11; emphasis added)

Given these facts, the Commission “determined that the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Barnet Shale production activities have caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood.”

The case became a national story in 2010 when Al Armendariz, then administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 office in north Texas, issued an “endangerment order” against Range Resources for allegedly contaminating water supplies as part of its gas drilling operations in Parker County. The order received immediate pushback from state regulators at the Railroad Commission, who contended that the EPA had not properly or thoroughly investigated the source of the methane. A few months after the order, the Railroad Commission was proven right when extensive testing — including a specific nitrogen fingerprinting analysis that the EPA knew about but refused to conduct — showed conclusively that the methane levels were not caused by Range’s activities, and matched the composition of shallower methane sources, from which Range was not producing.

The New York Times covered the case in 2011, when emails revealed a carefully concocted “strategy” by anti-fracking activists to get the EPA to intervene. Part of that strategy, according to a state district judge, was to create a “deceptive video” that was “calculated to alarm the public into believing the [landowner’s] water was burning.” The video was of a man lighting the end of a garden hose, although the hose was actually connected to a gas vent, not the water line. Pictures of another water well in the region — taken in 2005, years before drilling began — also showed how methane had long been known to be present in local water supplies.

Hurst water well 1-1

Armendariz, then the EPA administrator, famously thanked the activists for educating him about gas drilling issues in an email in which he tipped them off to the endangerment order before it had become public. After video surfaced in 2012 of Armendariz telling an audience that his method of regulating oil and gas development was similar to how the Romans used to “crucify” villagers they had conquered, he was forced to resign. Armendariz began working at the anti-fracking Sierra Club two months later.

However, the “flaming hose” video had staying power, even long after it was revealed to be a stunt by anti-fracking groups that had nothing to do with drilling. It even drew the attention of Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox, who embarrassingly made the “flaming hose” the emblematic scene of his second movie, Gasland Part II.

Given the prevalence of water wells drilled into gas-bearing formations, the Railroad Commission recommends that landowners in the area “ventilate and aerate their water systems” to prevent methane from accumulating.


*NOTE: A comprehensive fact-sheet on the Parker County case can be found here.

  • Scott Cannon
    Posted at 10:13 am, May 29, 2014 Reply

    “Given these facts, the Commission “determined that the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Barnet Shale production activities have caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood.” You state right there that there is not enough evidence to make a conclusion, yet you make the conclusion that the issue has been debunked. Congratulations Steve, you have a talent for deception. You are working for the perfect organization to exploit your talents.

    • Steve Everley, Energy In Depth
      Posted at 10:20 am, May 29, 2014 Reply

      Hi Scott, thanks as always for your comments.

      You may have missed it, but just above the quote you cherry picked is this conclusion from the Railroad Commission: “Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence”

      As such, the Commission’s finding that there is insufficient evidence to link the methane to drilling is perfectly consistent with what is described in this post. Did you also miss the Commission’s finding that several of the water wells were drilled into gas-bearing formations? That explains why the gas has a Strawn fingerprint, and is not coming from the Barnett Shale, which is the formation from which Range Resources was actually producing.

      Again, thanks for reading the post, although given your comment, I would recommend you give it another try.

    • Donald Roessler
      Posted at 11:48 am, May 29, 2014 Reply

      There is not enough “evidence” to conclude it was caused by drilling so they concluded it was not. In other words they found no reason to conclude it was from drilling. Nice how you twist the wording Scott.

      • Peterk
        Posted at 1:27 pm, May 29, 2014 Reply

        No amount of evidence proving that fracking is not involved will ever convince the anti-frackers that they are wrong. reminds me of the folks who weren’t convinced by an overwhelming amount of evidence that the earth is round or that the earth circles around the sun.

  • Matthew Cowan
    Posted at 12:44 pm, May 29, 2014 Reply

    Mr. Everley, I saw this reported in the Houston Chronicle today.

    In it it it says “But Rob Jackson, a Duke University professor who specializes in isotopic analysis and has conducted this fingerprint testing on the water in the neighborhood, said he was surprised by the agency’s decision not to do further testing.

    “Based on their own data, five of eight water wells show increasing methane concentrations through time,” Jackson said in an email.”

    Do you have any comments on what Dr. Jackson found and why he made such a conclusion?

    • Steve Everley, Energy In Depth
      Posted at 12:57 pm, May 29, 2014 Reply

      Hi Matthew,

      The problem with Dr. Jackson’s claims is that they are based on data and findings that he has refused to disclose publicly, although the results have apparently been handed out to reporters. Unfortunately, that prevents anyone from independently assessing the results.

      In a general sense, increasing levels of methane are not necessarily an indication of drilling impacts. As the Railroad Commission pointed out, several of the wells in the region were drilled into a gas-bearing zone. That explains why the nitrogen fingerprinting done back in 2011 — which is what the Railroad Commission used in its determination that Range was not responsible — showed the source likely to be the Strawn formation, not the Barnett Shale from which Range was producing. As water levels rise and fall, naturally occurring methane concentrations can also fluctuate, sometimes considerably. Although geology is not uniform, it’s often the case that extensive water withdrawals from an aquifer connected to a gas-bearing zone will increase methane concentrations, due to pressure differentials. This particular area of Parker County has seen extensive development over the past several years, which in turn has led to increasing levels of water consumption from the aquifer.

      If you read through some of our other posts on this blog, you’ll notice that people who have blamed Range Resources have largely refused to deviate from that position, even when new information contradicts their prior theories. For example, the EPA’s original order against Range linked the methane to gas-drilling activities because the methane had a similar composition to what was in Range’s wells. But the EPA did not conduct nitrogen fingerprinting, and nitrogen is the key distinguishing factor between Barnett Shale gas and shallower Strawn gas. And yet, defenders of the EPA have pointed to Range whether the subsequent analyses have suggested a Barnett source or Strawn source. In other words, many of the studies and analyses that supposedly linked the methane to Range’s activities has shown irreconcilable results, but the blame remains the same. If one is right, then the other is not; unfortunately, it’s often easier to simply blame “fracking” than it is to assess what the findings actually mean.

      I hope that helps.

      • Matthew Cowan
        Posted at 1:11 pm, May 29, 2014 Reply

        Yes, that helps. I have been studying this since 2011. I have talked with Dr. Kreitler, who did some of the original isotopic analysis that showed the nitrogen levels in the methane were different which shows that one was from the Barnett shale and one from Strawn.

        I was curious as to Dr. Jackson’s research because I know he has been heavily involved in saying the same thing about the Marcellus shale gas contamination and yet the research by Ms. Molofsky demonstrated those cases were not from the marcellus shale. It was explained to me that Molofsky’s research was based upon actually data plots and Dr. Jackson’s was a statistical inference. I was wondering if that was the same method Dr. Jackson took here so that is why I asked.

        I appreciate your answer.

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