*UPDATE III* What the AP Forgot to Mention about Parker Co. Case

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.”

Olson concludes:

“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.


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