Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

EPA to Range Resources: Drill Away

Courtesy of Cathy McKenna via Flickr Creative Commons

A Range Resources oil rig across the street from a public park in Denton, TX.

The original version of this article, released on March 30, 2012, incorrectly attributed the following quote to an EPA press release: “In a press release today, the EPA stated that ‘multiple investigations into the claims showed no link between Range Resources’ operations and water contamination.’” The Texas Oil and Gas Association provided this quote in its own press release on 3/30/2012. The EPA did not issue a press release on 3/30/2012. We regret the error.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today its decision to drop charges filed against oil drilling company Range Resources for contaminating residential well water. The now-defunct charges stemmed from a Parker County couple’s claim back in August 2010 that Range Resources’ natural gas fracking wells polluted their water supply with methane. A press release issued by the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) attributed the EPA’s decision to withdraw from the case to “multiple investigations into the claims [that] showed no link between Range Resources’ operations and water contamination.”

Industry representatives across the state greeted the EPA’s decision with enthusiastic approval.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission – which conducted its own geological investigation of the the Parker County wells – celebrated the announcement as “a vindication of the science-based processes at the Railroad Commission.” Smitherman underscored his remarks with the promise that he “will remain vigilant to ensure that the EPA uses the highest standards of science instead of making arbitrary regulations to President Obama’s anti-fossil fuel agenda.”

The Texas Oil and Gas Association praised the Railroad Commission’s investigation in its own press release, saying that the association is “encouraged that science appears to have prevailed in this instance at the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Despite the EPA’s withdrawal from the case, Range Resources isn’t completely off the hook. The drilling company agreed to conduct four sampling tests every three months over the course of the next year at each of the twenty private wells thought to have been polluted. They will begin surveying within thirty days of the EPA’s withdrawal from the case.

Today’s announcement marks the end of but one battle in a longstanding conflict between the Railroad Commission and the EPA that began with the Parker County water pollution case. Immediately after the suit was filed, the EPA 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.” The Railroad Commission decided to spearhead their own investigation, and found no link between the fracking and water contamination. To this day, Range Resources maintains that the well was contaminated by a naturally-occurring shallow gas field in the area.

The couple’s suit was thrown out by a state district judge this past January.

Just a couple weeks after the case was dropped, the Texas Railroad Commission re-stoked flames when it requested in writing that the EPA re-classify a December 2011 draft report that linked fracking to water contamination in Wyoming. Instead of labeling it a “draft” report, the Texas Railroad Commission asked the EPA to call it a “highly influential scientific assessment,” a request also made by several Republican senators this past January.

Why did they want the new language? The commission said 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.

The commission claimed that 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.”

At the time, the Railroad Commission feared that the EPA investigation could be used as a pretext for federal regulation of fracking, which is currently overseen on the state level.

Yana Skorobogatov is an intern with StateImpact Texas.


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