Putting to Rest the Silly Theories about Parker Co.

In recent weeks, several news outlets have attempted to rewrite the narrative about EPA’s December 2010 endangerment order against Range Resources in Parker County, Texas. The theories have run the gamut, from industry allegedly “pressuring” EPA to drop the order to the availability of “scientific analyses” that EPA supposedly discarded or ignored.

What ties all of these theories together? They change literally nothing about the facts of the case, which show that Range’s operations were not responsible for water contamination in Parker County.

The stories are based solely on “new information” about the case, which is unfortunately being conflated with “relevant information.”  Nothing that has been uncovered changes the fact that there was a lack of scientific merit in EPA’s original order. Additionally, none of this “new information” provides a credible alternative to the scientific testing that exonerated Range’s activities. In some cases, the “new information” isn’t actually new at all, but rather a rehash of what regulators already examined and refuted based on the evidence.

Let’s explore these theories in depth, shall we?

THEORY: Range Resources pressured the EPA into dropping the endangerment order in exchange for granting the agency access to its wells.

  • Associated Press: “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.” (Jan. 16, 2013)

FACT: It’s difficult to get past the sheer ridiculousness of the claim itself, but several outlets have seen fit to advance this theory as if it is a credible explanation – including the venerable Associated Press – so let’s examine the facts.

As we’ve explained before, the crux of this argument is that the EPA wanted access to Range Resources’ well sites for its ongoing study on potential water impacts from hydraulic fracturing. (With thousands of companies able and willing to participate, why the EPA would be insistent on gaining access to Range’s is never explained by adherents to this theory.) Since the EPA was involved in a legal dispute with Range Resources over the endangerment order in Parker County, Tex., the theory contends that Range didn’t want to work with EPA while that dispute was ongoing, so they offered to cut a deal behind closed doors: EPA drops the order, and Range allows access to its wells.

First of all, notice how this theory assumes – by a priori means – that the original endangerment order was scientifically justified? Let’s look at why that’s absurd:

  • We know, thanks to a mountain of evidence, that the source of natural gas in Steven Lipsky’s water wells was not the Barnett Shale (from which Range was producing), but was rather naturally occurring and originated from the shallower Strawn formation.
  • A water analysis presented to state regulators in January 2011 – during a regulatory hearing to which the EPA was invited but refused to attend – used geochemical gas fingerprinting to trace the source of the gas to the Strawn. Gas from the Barnett is very similar in composition to gas from the Strawn formation, but the presence of nitrogen provides a distinguishing characteristic, which the geochemical fingerprinting analysis showed conclusively.
  • According to EPA Region 6 official John Blevins, the EPA knew nitrogen was a distinguishing factor, but somehow failed to consider it. “It’s a factor, yes,” Blevins said, just before admitting: “I don’t believe that I could say EPA has an expert to opine on the nitrogen levels within any gas source.”
  • We also know that naturally occurring methane in water wells was a well-known phenomenon in the region, another fact presented at the January 2011 hearing. The EPA also knew of this phenomenon, but agency officials “do not believe those facts were…germane or relevant to the issue at hand,” according to Blevins’ court-ordered deposition from early 2011.

These facts – convenient omissions by the EPA, scientific tests exonerating Range – would conceivably undermine the case that EPA had against Range, and yet they get little to no attention in the reports suggesting Range pressured EPA to drop the case. Why let facts get in the way of a great story?

Second, for this theory to be plausible, the EPA would have had to seek access relatively quickly after the order was withdrawn. After all, if this were a quid pro quo, wouldn’t you expect each party to at least try to get what the other promised? Instead, all we have is a letter from Range Resources, sent after the endangerment order was dropped, saying it can work with the EPA again. Is it really so alarming that a company, after recognizing that a government agency — with which it is involved in a legal dispute — has changed its policies to focus on sound science, would embrace the idea of working with that agency in the future?

And nearly a year later, guess what? The EPA has not taken up Range on its offer of access to its wells.

Legal disputes, regardless of the industry, typically involve a variety of negotiations along the way. Both parties have an interest in justifying their actions, but they often see little value in a costly and prolonged affair. But the bottom line, regardless of the circumstances or details of those discussions, is that if the EPA were so motivated by a give-and-take backroom negotiation, it wouldn’t wait a year or even several months before trying to get its end of the “deal.”

And remember, the EPA tried to justify its order on the basis that “there were at least two families whose homes were in immediate danger of explosion and who had no safe household water from the aquifer.”

Would the EPA really toss aside something it viewed as protective of public safety just to gain access to a few well sites – which, of course, it never tried to access anyway? There are literally thousands of companies with whom the EPA could work on its study, but we are to believe the agency absolutely had to gain access to Range’s sites?

The agency did not do that, because the theory is as baseless as the endangerment order itself.

THEORY: A previously unreleased study suggests Range Resources was responsible for methane in Parker County water wells.

  • Associated Press: “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…” (Jan. 16, 2013)

FACT: This “scientific evidence” was actually little more than a draft report that did not even credibly examine the possibility that the gas could have come from other formations. It was also authored by someone unfamiliar with the scientific analyses delivered to the Texas Railroad Commission that exonerated Range.

The draft report, authored by Geoffrey Thyne, looked essentially only at the possibility that the gas could be originating from the Barnett Shale – one of many facts left out of the AP story that first highlighted it. As explained earlier, the composition of gas from the Barnett is similar to what’s in the Strawn, so if you’re looking only at gas in the Barnett and the methane found in the affected wells, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. This is why it’s crucial to look at multiple formations in the region, and closely examine distinguishing features like the presence of nitrogen. That’s what the scientists did in the reports that exonerated Range, but it’s not what Dr. Thyne (or the EPA) did.

Thyne’s report relied on hydrogen and carbon isotopic fingerprinting to suggest that Range’s activities in the Barnett Shale were impacting Lipsky’s water, because the isotopic readings in the water well were similar to what is encountered in the Barnett Shale. But as geochemist Mark McCaffrey (B.A., Harvard; Ph.D., MIT) of Weatherford Labs determined in his investigation:

“The geochemical parameter used by the EPA to determine a thermogenic origin of the Lipsky gas (e.g., the C isotopic composition of methane) does not differentiate gas in the Barnett Formation from gas in the Pennsylvanian reservoirs.” (emphasis added)

In other words, carbon isotopic fingerprinting (which Thyne used) will not correctly determine the source of the gas; instead, nitrogen content must be used to distinguish between Barnett gas and shallower (Pennsylvanian) formation gases.

As Dr. McCaffrey noted during the January 2011 Railroad Commission hearing:

“Specifically high nitrogen, low CO2 samples are characteristic of gasses produced from the shallower Pennsylvanian reservoirs. The natural gas component of the most recently collected Lipsky well headspace gas samples, which is the two that were shown in the previous table on the previous slide, contain higher nitrogen than is in Barnett gas.”

Interestingly, Thyne’s draft paper found that Barnett gas “has low nitrogen content of about 1%,” whereas the impacted water wells had nitrogen readings “between 4 and 31%.” Although Thyne was relying more on the carbon isotopic readings (which was a flawed model), even his tests showed that the nitrogen content in Lipsky’s water wells was at least four times higher than Barnett gas.

Given the centrality of nitrogen fingerprinting in determining the source, one could even suggest that Thyne’s findings validated the reports that exonerated Range – albeit unintentionally.

After examining all of the evidence in the case, in early 2011, the Texas Railroad Commission concluded:

“The EPA’s investigation compared gas produced from the tubing of the Butler well (Barnett Shale gas) to gas found in the Lipsky water well. The carbon isotopic finger print analysis of the gases were found to be very similar and both gases were determined to be thermogenic. Range demonstrated that use of the carbon isotope in the EPA analysis was inappropriate because the Barnett Shale is the source rock for all gas bearing zones above the Barnett Shale, including the much shallower Strawn formation. All gas produced from the same source rock would be expected to have a similar carbon isotope. The EPA did not attempt to identify any other potential source of the gas produced from the Lipsky well. Range further showed the appropriate geochemical parameters to use for fingerprinting in this case are nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Published literature confirms that Pennsylvanian age gases, including the Strawn, have higher nitrogen and lower carbon dioxide than Barnett Shale gas.

“…The fingerprinting analysis performed by Range demonstrates that gas found in all of the water wells had elevated nitrogen concentrations, indicating Pennsylvanian gas, not Barnett Shale gas. Additionally, gas produced from the Barnett Shale in the Butler and Teal wells contained no microbial gas, but the bradenhead samples from each well did contain microbial gas. These differentials confirm that the Barnett Shale is not in communication with any other zone, including the much shallower Strawn.” (emphasis added)

Finally, it’s worth noting that Thyne’s draft report – by the author’s own admission – was assembled without any knowledge of the scientific tests using nitrogen as the distinguishing characteristic (see Range Resources’ letter to EPA Region 6 administrator Ron Curry for more details). Given how science builds upon prior research, a lack of knowledge of what was essentially the most definitive scientific analysis of the affected wells to date is a significant and newsworthy fact.

It’s unfortunate that every recent report has failed even to consider this fundamental flaw, in addition to the other failings described above.

THEORY: A former employee of the Texas Railroad Commission found that Range’s activities forced Strawn gas into Steven Lipsky’s water well.

  • E&E News: “Thomas ‘Buddy’ Richter, hired by attorneys for one of the homeowners, said that state inspectors had found a leak and that Range failed to seal its well bore with cement deeply enough to protect the neighbors’ underground water supplies. Richter, a petroleum engineer, said other companies drilling shale in the area sealed their wells significantly deeper.” (Feb. 20, 2013)

FACT: Richter’s theory is absurd – based not only on the facts about Range’s activities, but also what Richter previously said about the case. (This latest “news,” by the way, is also just a retread of the same theory that was reported on more than a year ago.)

On November 9, 2011, Richter testified that he was aware of other water wells in close proximity to Steven Lipsky’s, all of which contained naturally occurring methane – one that had so much that it was actually flaring gas in 2005. Yet, he also admitted that he had seen no baseline data regarding the presence of methane in the Lipsky’s well prior to Range’s activities:

Q: Have you made any study about whether there was actually methane in the Lipsky water well as far back as 2005, in some amount?

RICHTER: I haven’t made such a study.

Q: You don’t have any water tests or head space gas tests from the Lipsky water well going back prior to 2010 that you’ve seen, correct?

RICHTER: I have not seen any such data.

Q: As you sit here today, you don’t know for a fact whether or not the Lipsky water well had any amount of methane in it prior to 2010, do you?

RICHTER: I do not know that as a fact because I have seen no data.

So, despite the prevalence of naturally occurring methane in virtually every other well in the region (a fact confirmed by Railroad Commission findings), Richter wants us to believe that the methane in Lipsky’s water is there because of Range’s activities – even though he has “no data” on what Lipsky’s water contained in the past. Was there methane in Lipsky’s water before Range drilled its wells, just like the dozens of other water wells in the area? Richter doesn’t know.

Richter further speculates that by drilling through the Strawn formation (before reaching the Barnett), Range Resources “possibly” created a pathway by which gas in formations between the Strawn and the Barnett, which could then travel up the annulus of the well and through thick drilling mud. After accomplishing that feat, according to Richter’s analysis, the gas would have had to exit the annulus and enter the Strawn formation, then create such significant new pressure in an underground rock layer that the gas already located in the Strawn formation was pushed toward the Lipsky’s property a half mile away. En route, somehow the gas also bypassed every other water well located between Range’s wells and Lipsky’s water well, and only impacted Lipsky’s well.

And what ultimately created this chain of highly unlikely events? According to Richter, Range Resources did not case and cement the well below the water aquifer, and thus Range did not comply with the state law (known as “Rule 13”) for setting surface casing.

The only problem with that? State regulators said Range was in compliance with Rule 13 for both of its wells – which Richter himself admitted in his deposition.

According to his testimony, Richter acknowledged that official state documents showed Range’s wells were in compliance (see p. 59-60). But he contends that Range was actually not in compliance because the wells were not cemented below the base of the formation containing groundwater (Cretaceous), which supplies water to Lipsky’s well. Richter alleges regulators were wrong to declare Range’s wells in compliance because the base of the water aquifer was actually deeper than official records stated.

Yet in his deposition, Richter admitted that, in Parker County, the distance between the surface and the base of the Cretaceous can vary, and he wasn’t even sure what the depth was. “I don’t know what the various elevations are,” Richter testified (p. 63).

In other words, Richter admits that regulators found the company in compliance with Rule 13, and the only basis for his disagreement is pure speculation about what the depth of the groundwater formation may or may not be.

But wait, there’s more.

According to E&E News, Richter says the Texas Railroad Commission determined Range was not at fault without even considering other arguments:

“Richter also noted the Railroad Commission made its decision based on information presented by Range, which went unchallenged at the hearing. That essentially made it a default judgment. Since it was an ‘unprotested’ case, Richter said, the agency assigns the decision less value than it would to a ‘protested’ case.”

From later in that same story: “But Range drilled through other gas-producing formations on its way to the mile-deep Barnett, and [Richter] said the commission didn’t account for that.”

First of all, remember: The EPA was invited to that hearing and refused to attend. Interestingly, the EPA even tried to prevent Range from gathering testimony on why the EPA issued its order, but a court thankfully denied the EPA’s request. If EPA had a credible scientific argument, it certainly could have presented it at the Railroad Commission hearing to which it was invited – and it wouldn’t have tried to squelch the company from investigating the events that led to the order. In any event, the lack of EPA’s presence at the Commission hearing is not the Commission’s fault; if anything, it speaks volumes about the case the EPA actually had against Range, and reflects unwillingness on the part of EPA to defend its own position.

Second, and more importantly, the claim that Range’s evidence went unchallenged by the Railroad Commission is simply untrue. In fact, one of the arguments considered at the hearing was the exact same theory Richter now espouses, and it was raised by the none other than a representative from the Texas Railroad Commission.

At the hearing in January 2011, Range’s witnesses were cross-examined by an attorney, David Cooney, who represented the Railroad Commission’s Oil and Gas Division. Cooney asked John McBeath, a petroleum engineer and well integrity expert, whether “the actual surface casing [for Range’s wells] was through the base of usable quality water as the conditions occurred in the field.” McBeath’s response?

“That is right. The Cretaceous is protected by the surface casing and the cement.” (Hearing transcript, Vol. II; p. 25)

McBeath also testified that the base of the Cretaceous was 324 feet deep at the location of the two Range wells in question. According to official records, surface casing for each well was set at approximately 400 feet, which Richter also confirmed in his deposition (p. 258).

This directly contradicts Richter’s theory that the wells (cased at around 400 feet by his own admission) were not cased deep enough to run past the base of the Cretaceous (depth: 324 feet). It also debunks his claim that the Railroad Commission failed to consider that possibility.

Indeed, according to the Railroad Commission’s determination after that hearing:

“Surface casing on both wells exceed the requirements of the TCEQ. Range’s experience in the area is that the Cretaceous generally extends to approximately 320 feet.”

The Commission added:

“The surface casing in each well is set below the base of the Cretaceous and is cemented to surface. The surface casings and production casings of both wells were tested when set during the drilling process. Further, Range performed a mechanical integrity test on the Butler well at the request of the RRC to demonstrate that the low bradenhead pressure on the well was not related to any type of casing problem. The cement behind the production casing is verified by a cement bond log in both wells.”

And yet despite all of this, we’re supposed to believe a guy when he says that Range’s wells weren’t cased and cemented deep enough to isolate themselves from the base of an aquifer, the depth of which he even admitted he did not know?

Finally, it’s worth noting that Richter’s theory is not that Barnett gas was reaching Lipsky’s water – as the EPA contended and Mr. Thyne’s draft report alleges – but rather gas from some other formation. This contradicts EPA’s John Blevins, who said the agency’s order was based on gas found in Lipsky’s water being “sufficiently similar to the gas that we found in the Butler [well] production stream.” The Butler well was producing natural gas from the Barnett Shale, which means EPA’s order was based on a supposed link between Barnett Shale gas and the gas found in Lipsky’s water.

And yet E&E News says Richter’s theories “make the most coherent case for EPA’s accusations,” a claim that by definition cannot be true.

EPA, Thyne, and Richter can’t all be right. In fact, the evidence shows that they’re all wrong. If Richter’s theories make “the most coherent case” for EPA’s actions, then the endangerment order was quite clearly baseless from the beginning.

In withdrawing the order against Range Resources, EPA never said that it was doing so based on a lack of scientific basis, even though anyone who has being paying attention knows that to be the case. Nor did the agency ever truly admit that the actions leading up to issuance of the order (including working closely with local activists) compromised the integrity of its actions.

But it’s also that refusal to admit the obvious that has created a vacuum, which has been filled with “alternate explanations” based on literally anything – regardless of its merits – that has since become public. As stories have come out, a consistent pattern of manufactured timelines also emerges, where intervening periods are selectively cast aside or punctuated in order to retroactively fit a particular narrative.

Range offered EPA access to its wells after the agency withdrew the order? Proof of industry pressure – even though nearly a year elapsed and the EPA never took them up on the offer.

A draft report that suggests a link between Range’s activities and methane contamination in water wells? Proof that Range was at fault – even though the report did little more than repeat EPA’s original argument, which was debunked by nitrogen fingerprinting at a hearing more than two years ago.

A former state employee who said his former agency didn’t consider an alternate theory? EPA’s case is validated – even though the agency did consider that theory back in 2011, and tossed it aside due to a preponderance of evidence proving otherwise.

What is interesting, however, is that in all of the recent reporting on this case — much of it derived from emails obtained in various FOIA requests to EPA — the most striking details were either buried or left unreported.

In an email sent more than a year after EPA issued its endangerment order against Range, then-administrator of EPA Region 6 Al Armendariz was still searching for data to validate EPA’s claims and even discussing the possibility that Range was not at fault. That’s notable in and of itself, but it’s even more significant when you consider what EPA scientist Dr. Doug Beak said about EPA’s data in November 2010, before the endangerment order was ever issued:

“[T]his is not conclusive evidence because of the limited data set…The only way now to compare the data would be to make assumptions to fill in data gaps and I don’t believe we have enough experience at this site or data to do this at this time.” (emphasis added)

So, prior to the issuance of the order, a geochemist within EPA had concluded there was a limited data set and not enough to make a connection to Range’s activities without filling in gaps based on “assumptions,” which he explicitly said the agency did not have the experience or data to do. More than a year later, the EPA was still looking for data to validate its case against Range Resources — which of course aligns with the concerns Dr. Beak raised in the weeks leading up to EPA’s order.

Shouldn’t EPA have had that data in hand before imposing a significant order of endangerment? If they didn’t have it, then on what was the order based? And why have a grand total of zero of the recent stories rehashing EPA’s endangerment order given this anything more than a passing mention?

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions about the events that transpired in Parker County in 2010. But if we’re interested in the truth, the facts should be what guide us – not the latest shiny object that can make for a great headline and increased site traffic.

It’s time to put an end to the silly theories and conspiracies. The facts speak for themselves.

Comments

  1. JP Collins says:

    Jesse White’s head just exploded.

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