Source: Dallas Morning News, March 31, 2012
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com
The Environmental Protection Agency, which made national headlines in December 2010 when it ordered natural gas driller Range Resources to clean up pollution in Parker County drinking water, has dropped its case against the company.
In exchange, Range agreed to monitor groundwater around the alleged contamination. Each side also ended lawsuits against the other.
Federal court filings dated Thursday confirmed the cease-fire.
The case had pitted the EPA’s scientific assertions against the whole weight of the natural gas industry, which saw the dispute as an indicator of whether the EPA might crack down on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the main way of getting gas out of stubborn rock.
The practice has rejuvenated the country’s natural gas industry, including in North Texas’ Barnett Shale field, among the biggest. But it also has stirred bitter arguments over fracking’s environmental impact.
The EPA is conducting a national study of whether fracking endangers water supplies. Dallas is weighing possible regulations on drilling and fracking within the city.
In court papers resolving the case in Parker County, west of Fort Worth, the EPA did not say whether it still believes Range Resources was to blame for natural gas in the water well at Steven Lipsky’s expansive home on the Brazos River.
The case was an immediate national symbol when it began nearly 16 months ago. For environmentalists, it showed reckless endangerment of the public and water supplies in the rush to exploit newly accessible gas fields.
For the gas industry, it was an example of federal overreaching compounded by bad government science.
In light of its resolution, the case seems likely to add little or no ammunition to environmentalists’ calls for tough federal rules or an outright ban on fracking.
“Range is very pleased to see that the EPA’s order in Parker County has been withdrawn,” the Pennsylvania-based company said in a prepared statement.
“It’s important for people to know that their environment, health and safety is protected and hopefully this provides them with that comfort.”
The EPA’s regional office in Dallas said in a prepared statement that the settlement would let it move from lawsuits to research.
“Resolving the lawsuits with Range allows the EPA to shift the agency’s focus in this particular case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction,” the agency said.
“EPA and Range will share scientific data and conduct further well monitoring in the area, and Range will also provide useful information and access to EPA in support of EPA’s scientific inquiry into the potential impacts of energy extraction on drinking water.”
The EPA never stated directly that fracking was a cause of the Lipskys’ gas problem. The agency referred repeatedly, however, to the use of the practice at two Range wells near the family’s house.
Lipsky, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, has said gas started showing up in his water about a year after Range drilled two gas wells nearby. He offered video showing flames shooting from a garden hose.
The EPA said methane levels within the Lipskys’ house posed a risk of explosion.
Range Resources and sister company Range Production denied that any mishap involving gas drilling had contaminated the Lipskys’ well. Range said the methane in the well was typical of water supplies in an area with vast supplies of naturally occurring gas.
In its initial order, dated Dec. 7, 2010, the EPA commanded Range to provide the Lipskys with safe drinking water and conduct tests that could have resulted in an expensive groundwater cleanup over a large area.
Range immediately went to federal court, saying the EPA had improperly denied the company a chance to present its evidence before issuing the order. The EPA countered that federal law authorized such unilateral orders in cases of imminent public endangerment.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production, backed Range’s conclusion that it was not to blame after a January 2011 hearing.
Only the company and commission staff offered testimony during the hearing, although the EPA and the Lipskys’ consultants gave depositions.