Drillers able to make EPA back down in Pa., elsewhere
WEATHERFORD, Texas — When a man in a Fort Worth suburb reported his family's drinking water had begun bubbling like champagne, the federal government sounded an alarm: An oil company may have tainted their wells while drilling for natural gas.
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 More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate and refused to explain why.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 Corp., but changed course when 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.
For Steve Lipsky, the EPA decision seemed to ignore the dangers to his family. His water supply contains so much methane that the gas in water flowing from a pipe connected to the well can be ignited.
“I just can't believe that an agency that knows the truth about something like that, or has evidence like this, wouldn't use it,” said Lipsky, who fears he will have to abandon his dream home in an upscale neighborhood of Weatherford.
The case isn't the first in which the EPA initially linked a hydraulic fracturing operation to water contamination and then softened its position after the industry protested.
A similar dispute unfolded in west-central Wyoming in late 2011, when the EPA released an initial report that showed hydraulic fracturing could have contaminated groundwater. After industry and GOP leaders went on the attack, the agency said it had decided to do more testing. It has yet to announce a final conclusion.
In June 2011, agency officials said they were going to test through the full life cycle of wells at a Range Resources site in Washington County and at a site in Louisiana. At a November conference in Pittsburgh, a top EPA official said publicly for the first time that that plan had fallen through.
One of those sites had proved technically unsuited for the research and the agency had yet to finalize a deal with the company that was going to give it access to the other, agency science adviser Glenn Paulson said after a speech at the University of Pittsburgh‘s annual conference on shale drilling‘s health effects. He could not remember which was which, he said at the time.
A Range spokesman said the company welcomed the federal research but did not comment on whether it ever had a deal or was working on one for the agency‘s study.
Hydraulic fracturing — often called “fracking” — allows drillers to tap into oil and gas reserves that were once considered out of reach because they were locked in deep layers of rock.
The method 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.
Range Resources, a leading independent player in the natural gas boom, has hundreds of gas wells throughout Texas, Pennsylvania and other mineral-rich areas of the United States.
Among them is a production site — now owned by Legend Natural Gas — in a wooded area about a mile from Lipsky's home in Weatherford, about a half-hour drive west of Fort Worth.
Government scientists believed two families, including the Lipskys, were in danger from methane and cancer-causing benzene and ordered Range Resources to take steps to clean their water wells and provide affected homeowners with safe water.
The company stopped doing that after state regulators declared in March 2011 that Range Resources was not responsible.
The dispute between the EPA and the company then moved into federal court.
Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.
Meanwhile, the EPA was seeking industry leaders to participate in a national study into hydraulic fracturing. 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.
In March 2012, the EPA retracted its emergency order, halted the court battle and set aside Thyne's report showing that the gas in Lipsky's water was nearly identical to the gases the Plano, Texas-based company was producing.
“They said that they would look into it, which I believe is exactly what they did,” Poole said. “I'm proud of them. As an American, I think that's exactly what they should have done.”
The EPA offered no public explanation for its change in thinking, and Lipsky said he and his family learned about it from a reporter. The agency refused to answer questions about the decision, instead issuing a statement by email that said resolving the Range Resources matter allowed the EPA to shift its “focus in this case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction.”