In a meeting this morning punctuated by harsh denunciations of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Railroad Commission voted unanimously to clear a natural gas driller, Range Resources, of charges that it contaminated two water wells in Parker County.
"We'll see which is the real protection agency, and I'd say it's the Railroad Commission of Texas," Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones said after the vote. The EPA, she said, had been too "hasty" in accusing Range of contaminating an aquifer roughly one mile above its drilling site in the Barnett Shale. The case acquired a high profile after the EPA announced in December that it was ordering Range to fix the homeowners' water problems, effectively stepping in above the Railroad Commission, which was still investigating at the time.
But the EPA is standing by its accusation. "The decision by the Texas Railroad Commission is not supported by EPA’s independent, scientific investigation, which concluded that Range Resources Corporation and Range Production Company have contributed to the contamination of homeowners’ drinking water wells in Parker County, Texas," the agency said in a statement today. The agency's legal complaint against Range is still pending.
Railroad Commission examiners conducted a hearing in January on the case and found that Range's work had not contaminated the water, which instead could have been affected by gas in a much shallower formation. The Railroad Commission's vote today ratified the findings.
It was the last Railroad Commission meeting for Commissioner Michael Williams, who is leaving to run for the U.S. Senate. He said the EPA had not given Range an opportunity to defend itself, something he had "never seen" in his 12-year tenure at the Railroad Commission. "We owe an enormous thank you to Range Resources, because quite frankly they put up a diligent and aggressive defense of their operations," Williams said.
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee, attended the hearing and castigated the EPA for a "reckless" and "cavalier" attitude toward the Railroad Commission and Texas. Dec. 7 — the day the federal agency issued its order to Range — is "another day that will live in infamy, I guess," Keffer said.
Keffer noted that Texas is aggressively pushing back at the EPA on this front and others; he attended a meeting on Monday that created a new task force of state and federal policymakers to pare back the agency's reach. "We can't let this drop," Keffer said.
The EPA's statement today also said:
EPA stands by the order issued to Range Resources and seeks to secure Range’s full compliance and to confirm that actions taken by Range since the issuance of the order were performed properly. The United States has filed a case in federal district court to enforce EPA's emergency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Range has also filed a petition in the federal court of appeals challenging the order. All questions concerning that action should be directed to the Department of Justice.
A complete copy of EPA’s report and data, referred to as the Administrative Record, has been provided to both Range and the Texas Railroad Commission, and is publicly available on our website.
EPA believes that natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future. However, we want to make sure natural gas development is done safely and with public health as a first priority.