Looks like those hoping the conflict between Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would cool down after Rick Perry’s departure from the presidential race are in for some disappointment. On Tuesday, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates drilling in the state, fired a shot across the bow of the EPA. The message? Don’t touch our fracking.
In a letter to the EPA, all three members of the Railroad Commission call to re-classify a December draft report that found a link between fracking and water contamination in Wyoming. Instead of labeling it a “draft” report, they want the EPA to call it a “highly influential scientific assessment,” a request also made by several Republican senators in late January.
Why do they want the new language? The commission says that under White House guidelines, if an investigation or report is “controversial or precedent-setting” then it is first released as a “highly influential scientific study” before becoming a “draft” report.
If this seems like semantics, and you’re scratching your head as to why the Railroad Commission of Texas cares about an EPA report on wells in Wyoming, there’s a clear explanation.
The Railroad Commission fears (as do many in the drilling industry) that the EPA investigation could be used as a pretext for federal regulation of fracking, which is currently overseen on the state level.
There is some bad blood between the two. In August 2010, a couple in Parker County, outside of Fort Worth, reported problems with their tap water to the EPA. Specifically, it had a lot of methane and “was bubbling and even flammable,” according to an EPA website about the case. Their land was adjacent to several fracking operations of Range Resources, a drilling company. The EPA quickly ordered a “substantial endangerment order” against Range Resources, saying that their fracking had “caused or contributed to the contamination of at least two residential drinking water wells.”
But in a later deposition, John Blevins, an official at the regional office of the EPA, was more cautious about making a direct link. He said that nearby fracking by Range Resources “may have caused or contributed” to methane contamination of the drinking water wells. The Railroad Commission launched their own investigation, and found no link between the fracking and water contamination. In the end, the couple’s suit was thrown out by a state district judge and it isn’t clear if they’ll appeal. Range Resources maintains that the well was contaminated by a naturally-occurring shallow gas field in the area.
The commission says the EPA’s Wyoming report “seems to be a repeat of the template EPA followed in the Range Resources case: first, make a ‘preliminary,’ unproven assertion that will be perceived by the media and the public as a condemnation of hydraulic fracturing, then quietly back away once the science has proved the assertions to be false.”
It’s worth noting that the geological conditions and fracking depths in Wyoming are unique and far different from what you’d find at most drilling sites in Texas. In essence, the Wyoming well was drilled much shallower than what you’d find here. University of Texas Geologist Chip Groat told StateImpact Texas after the EPA report was released in December that fracking is different here. “We do have several thousand feet with impermeable rock layers between fracturing depths and shallow ground water,” Groat said, “So I think its a safe thing to say that conditions are much different here. And much more protective here than they are up there.”
The Railroad Commission maintains that there hasn’t been “a single proven case of groundwater contamination occurring as a result of hydraulic fracturing” and that they have “stringent rules on how oil and gas wells are constructed, requiring several layers of steel casing and cement protection through aquifers.” The EPA is currently investigating a case of potential drinking water well contamination in the Barnett Shale in Denton and Wise counties. That case study is separate from the Range Resources investigation.
As for the EPA report on contamination from fracking in Wyoming, it is open for peer review until February 17 and public comment until March 12.
Read the full letter from the Railroad Commission to the EPA: