Couple blame Range for methane in water

Source: http://www.star-telegram.com, January 13, 2012
By: Jack Z. Smith

A Parker County couple who sued Range Resources last year over water well contamination say their well was infiltrated with methane as a result of improper casing and cementing of two of the company’s natural gas wells, according to documents filed in court.

Fort Worth-based Range maintains that its Butler and Teal wells, drilled more than a mile deep into the Barnett Shale, did not cause or contribute to contamination of the water well at Steve and Shyla Lipsky’s home in the upscale Silverado subdivision in far south Parker County.

The well is about 200 feet deep and draws from the Trinity Aquifer.

The well was also the subject of an Environmental Protection Agency emergency order issued against Range 13 months ago. Range is also fighting the EPA order in federal court.

The Lipskys, in their lawsuit pending before State District Judge Trey Loftin in Parker County, say Range’s “failure to cement the surface casing of the Butler and Teal wells to a depth of at least 1,000 feet” caused natural gas from geological formations above the Barnett Shale to seep into their water supply. Methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Range denies that claim, which is “unsupported by facts and based on speculation,” company spokesman Matt Pitzarella said in an e-mail response to Star-Telegram questions.

“Range would drill and complete the wells the same way if we had it to do over again,” Pitzarella said.

Range is seeking to have the Lipskys’ $6.5 million lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that the Texas Railroad Commission, after an investigation and hearing, entered a final order March 22 concluding that Range’s wells did not “cause or contribute” to pollution of the water well. The commission concluded that the gas in the well likely was naturally occurring and came from the Strawn formation, only several hundred feet deep, into which gas wells were drilled in the early 1980s.

In an affidavit and sworn deposition filed in the lawsuit, Thomas Richter, a senior petroleum engineer with PGH Petroleum and Environmental Engineers in Austin, says Range should have extended protective surface casing hundreds of feet deeper in its two gas wells to seal them off from geological formations above the Barnett known to contain gas. Richter was hired by the Lipskys as a consultant in the lawsuit.

In his affidavit, Richter said the wellbores of Range’s two gas wells penetrate through the Strawn, Atoka, Bend, Conglomerate and Marble Falls formations. Each of these “has been or is currently producing natural gas,” Richter said. There have been 117 gas wells completed or recompleted in those formations within five miles of Range’s wells, he said.

Richter said Range put cemented surface casing only 427 feet below ground level in the Teal well and 394 feet below surface in the Butler well. He said that the Teal well’s “longstring casing,” or production casing, is uncemented from the ground surface to a depth of 4,810 feet and that the Butler well’s production casing is uncemented from the ground surface to 4,580 feet, with cementing resuming beyond those depths and going through to the end of the horizontal legs of the wells.

“Thus, there is no confining cement isolating either of Range’s wells from any gas-containing formation(s) that exist from depths between approximately 400 feet (base of the surface casing) and approximately 4,500 feet,” Richter said in the affidavit.

This lack of cementing for thousands of feet in each well, coupled with faults, “creates an environment in which gas could migrate through formations above the Barnett Shale to the uncemented portion of the two wells, from where it could ultimately reach the Lipskys’ water supply,” Richter said in the affidavit.

Gas may have migrated via the annulus — the space between the production casing and the surface casing — he said. Casing is steel pipe used in wells. In the Range wells, the surface casing is 7 inches in diameter and outside the production casing, which is 4.5 inches in diameter. Inside the production casing is production tubing, 23/8 inches in diameter, through which produced natural gas flows.

Richter concluded in his affidavit that “gas from the Strawn formation and/or other deeper producing gas formations (but not the Barnett Shale)” migrated “to the Lipsky water supply” that is fed by the Trinity Aquifer, above the Strawn. Richter said he reached his conclusions to “a reasonable degree of petroleum engineering certainty.”

Richter said he agreed with the Railroad Commission’s conclusion last year that the methane gas that contaminated the Lipsky well did not come from the Barnett Shale, approximately 5,700 feet below ground level and the formation from which the two Range wells produce gas. The wells are still producing gas, and Range still owns them, Pitzarella said, though Range has sold most of its Barnett properties.

Richter’s conclusions represent the most specific assessment of how the Range wells might have caused or contributed to the water-well contamination. The EPA has never outlined a specific explanation nor delineated a precise pathway for gas to have entered the water wells.

Richter also says Range violated an important Railroad Commission regulation, Statewide Rule 13, by not adequately casing and cementing the Teal and Butler wells to ensure that they were isolated from gas-producing formations above the Barnett.

Richter, in a deposition in the Lipsky lawsuit, said the Railroad Commission action exonerating Range had a strong political overtone, with the three commissioners obviously upset over the EPA’s unusual intervention in the water-well contamination investigation under auspices of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Richter, a former Railroad Commission hearing examiner, said commissioners felt the EPA had accused the state agency of “dragging its feet” in investigating the well contamination and swiftly responded with the state hearing on the issue. “I think they were trying to make a statement: ‘EPA go home,'” Richter said in the deposition.

Pitzarella, the Range spokesman, vigorously rebutted Richter’s conclusions about the likely causes of the water-well contamination.

Richter “completely ignores the fact that there are numerous proved instances of natural gas in water wells in the area long before Range drilled the Butler and Teal wells” in 2009, Pitzarella said.

Evidence “conclusively shows that gas has existed naturally in the [Trinity] Aquifer for many years,” Pitzarella said.

“Any contention that Range violated Statewide Rule 13 is false,” Pitzarella said. For both the Butler and Teal wells, Range properly set the surface casing to a depth that extended 195 feet below the level authorized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to protect the aquifer and the depth was “specifically approved by the Texas Railroad Commission,” he said.

Pitzarella said “extensive testing of the wells demonstrated that the drilling and completion designs were excellent and resulted in excellent wellbores.”

Range also took issue with Richter’s contentions that geological faults could have provided conduits, allowing upward migration of gas and contamination of the Lipsky well.

Pitzarella said Range supplied 3-D seismic data to the Railroad Commission showing that “there is no faulting in the immediate area of the lateral wellbores of either the Butler or Teal wells, and to the extent other faulting exists hundreds or thousands of feet away from the Butler and Teal wellbores, it is minimal and the faults are small.”

Range also provided “gamma ray logs recorded while drilling both the Teal and Butler wells that showed no faults were encountered,” Pitzarella said.

The Lipsky water well was drilled in 2005, and the Butler and Teal wells were drilled in 2009. Richter, in court filings, said Lipsky didn’t begin getting gas in his water well until after the Butler and Teal wells were completed. For four years, the Lipsky well didn’t have a gas problem, unlike earlier water wells that encountered gas as they were drilled, Richter said.

The EPA, after receiving a complaint from Lipsky about gas in his water well, did environmental testing and issued the emergency order against Range on Dec. 7, 2010, saying its gas wells “caused or contributed” to the contamination of the Lipsky well and another nearby well. The EPA ordered Range to take measures to alleviate the problem.

John Blevins, the EPA regional official who signed the emergency order, later backtracked somewhat, saying in a sworn deposition that Range’s wells “may” have caused or contributed to the water-well contamination.

The EPA last year filed legal papers in federal court in Dallas, asking a judge to enforce the emergency order and consider assessing fines against Range for failure to comply with some provisions. Action is pending in that court as it awaits the outcome of a Range appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, seeking dismissal of the EPA order.

The Lipskys filed their Parker County lawsuit against Range in June.

In the following month, Range filed a counterclaim against the Lipskys as part of the same legal proceeding. In the counterclaim, Range seeks millions of dollars in damages and named Flower Mound environmental scientist Alisa Rich as a third-party defendant.

She did water and air testing of the Lipskys’ water well in 2010 and home and urged Steve Lipsky to contact the EPA.

Meanwhile, the Lipskys have had a new water well drilled on their property. The well was completed June 2, 2011, by Peck’s Well Service of Weatherford, according to information filed with the state.

Lipsky declined to be interviewed for this report, referring the Star-Telegram to his attorneys, who did not respond to e-mails and phone calls from the newspaper.

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