EPA’s order against Range Resources for allegedly charging groundwater with gas from its Barnett Shale wells has caused quite a stir.
The Texas Railroad Commission has issued two news releases, one on December 7 and one on December 8. Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo said that he has told EPA Regions 6 Administrator Al Armendariz that “EPA’s actions are premature as the Railroad Commission continues to actively investigate this issue and has not yet determined the cause of the gas. This EPA action is unprecedented in Texas, and commissioners will consider all options as we move forward.” Commissioner Michael Williams said “this is Washington politics of the worst kind. The EPA’s act is nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business.” The December 8 press release said that the Commission has called a hearing for January 10 and “expects both parties, the EPA as well as Range Resources representatives, to appear before Hearings Examiners and testify as to the allegations made yesterday.” Range has said it will attend the hearing, but it understands that the EPA will not.
Range also issued a press release on December 8, saying it is working with EPA and the Railroad Commission to find the source of the gas, has conducted extensive testing and has provided results of those tests to the landowners, the EPA, and the Commission. “Based on our findings to date, it’s very clear that our activities have not had any impact on the water aquifer in southern Parker County or the subject water wells. … The investigation has revealed that methane in the water aquifer existed long before our activity and likely is naturally occurring migration from several shallow gas zones immediately below the water aquifer.”
The Powell Barnett Shale Newsletter, an electronic weekly newsletter reporting on shale plays including the Barnett, issued a special report of its own investigation, titled “EPA Wrong – Barnett Shale Gas Not In Water Wells.” The report concluded that the source of methane contamination in the water wells was the Strawn Sand formation, a shallow gas-bearing formation found at depths as shallow as 200 feet, just beneath the Paluxy water sand in the area. The two contaminated water wells were drilled to 200 feet and 220 feet. The Newsletter reported conversations with a water well driller in the area who said he has drilled many water wells that were charged with natural gas, including one he drilled about 775 feet from one of the contaminated wells. That well, drilled in 2005, produced a significant quantity of gas that when lit produced a six-foot flare. The Newsletter’s research found that gas wells have been drilled into the Strawn sand and produced gas a little over a mile southeast of the contaminated water wells. the Newletter concluded:
All of our research proves, by fact, and documents/photo, that the natural gas in the water in area private water wells is from the shallow Strawn Sand beneath and intertwined with the Paluxy Sand in this area. Each water well in this area should be tested for natural gas and those that show intrusion should be plugged. Continuing to water landscapes with well water containing even very small amounts of natural gas ‘pulls’ it further into the depleting water reservoir adding to eventual natural gas intrusion into other area private water wells, in our opinion.
Bob Patterson, general manager of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that natural gas has contaminated shallow water-bearing sands in the area “for an estimated 40 years.”
None of the responses to the EPA’s order directly addresses the findings from its analysis of the gas found in the contaminated water wells. EPA concluded that its gas analysis from one of the water wells and from the Range wells showed that the gas from the two wells “are likely to be from the same source.”
Meanwhile, in a similar incident in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently announced that it had reached a settlement with Cabot Oil and Gas for alleged contamination of water wells by Cabot wells completed in the Marcellus Shale. The settlement provides that residents who have had their drinking water supplies contaminated will receive a share of $4.1 million paid by Cabot, and the settlement will bind Cabot to offer to install whole-house gas mitigation devices in each of 19 affected homes. Cabot will also pay the Pennsylvania DEP $500,000 to offset the state’s expense of investigating the complaints. DEP also ordered Cabot to plug three wells believed to be the source of the migrating gas and placed a moratorium on issuance of any further drilling permits to Cabot in a nine square-mile area around Dimock. The settlement means, however, that the planned water line to Dimock, which DEP had said Cabot will have to pay for, has been cancelled.