A report by the Inspector General’s office (IG) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding EPA’s actions in 2010 is an obvious attempt to whitewash EPA’s bullying tactics.
The issue involves two water wells in Parker County that were allegedly contaminated by natural gas wells drilled by Range Resources, a Fort Worth company. EPA’s office in Dallas issued an emergency order on Dec. 7, 2010 against Range Resources.
The 32-page IG report, released this past Christmas Eve, was performed in response to a Congressional inquiry made on June 19, 2012 that questioned EPA’s intervention into a case that was already under investigation by Texas regulators. Some members of Congress were puzzled as to why EPA would issue the emergency order without a hearing. In effect, EPA tried, convicted and sentenced Range without any notice or opportunity to appear and show that it was not at fault.
The fact the EPA later withdrew the order appeared to prove that the agency had overreached.
The IG justified EPA’s bullying tactics by stating that EPA “needs neither proof that contamination has already occurred nor proof that the recipient of the order is responsible for the contamination” before issuing an emergency order. That’s right: EPA now apparently doesn’t even need proof to accuse energy companies of wrongdoing.
The IG report claims the gas found in the water wells was “nearly identical” to the gas produced by the wells Range drilled. But testimony before the Railroad Commission (RRC) in 2011 revealed that the methane came from the gas-bearing Strawn formation, which is located only about 400 feet below the surface, and into which a nearby landowner had actually drilled her water well. Range was producing from the Barnett Shale, which lies about 5,000 feet below the surface.
The RRC took soil and water samples and conducted pressure tests on Range’s wells, which showed no sign of leakage around the wells. Documents from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality confirm that Range’s wells were cased and sealed in full compliance with regulations.
The RRC also faulted EPA for how it fingerprinted the source of the gas. “Gas from the Strawn has higher nitrogen concentration and lower carbon dioxide concentration than Barnett Shale gas,” the RRC report stated. An EPA official, John Blevins, admitted under oath that nitrogen fingerprinting is an important factor in determining the source, but that EPA still did not examine nitrogen in determining the source of the gas.
Days before the order was issued, EPA scientist Dr. Doug Beak said in an email to colleagues that the available “limited data” were “not conclusive evidence” and that the “only way now to compare the data would be to make assumptions to fill in data gaps.”
EPA’s actions drew the attention of news media and members of Congress. EPA’s regional administrator, Al Armendariz, had issued a news release about the emergency order on Dec. 7, 2010 that referred to hydraulic fracting” four times, indicating that fracturing could be a cause. He also sent an email to environmental groups in Texas just hours before the order was issued, imploring them to “Tivo channel 8” because “we’re about to make a lot of news.”
The IG report noted that the administrator had “informed environment and citizen groups,” but it was “not out of the ordinary for the EPA to inform interested parties of press releases after they are released.” But the emails with local activists occurred before the order was issued, not afterward.
Months before he issued the order against Range, Armendariz was caught on video saying his method of enforcing regulations on oil and gas producers was similar to “how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean.” He added, “You hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them.” Armendariz was later forced to resign when the video was made public, and he now works for the Sierra Club, which lobbies against the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Testimony in state district court also revealed that an environmental consultant, Alisa Rich, had worked with the owner of the water wells on a “strategy” to “intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent - not a water line - and then light and burn the gas from the end nozzle of the hose,” Judge Trey Loftin, 43rd District Court in Parker County, wrote in his order in favor of Range Resources on Feb. 16, 2012.
Rich also gleefully emailed the landowner: “It is worth every penny if we can get jurisdiction to EPA.”
The IG report failed to mention the judge’s findings or the collusion with environmental groups that led to EPA’s involvement. However, it was obvious from the evidence presented in court and at the RRC hearing that EPA overreached in an effort to “make an example” out of Range Resources.
Alex Mills is president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. The opinions expressed are solely of the author.