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Methane Inquiry Closes, but Questions Linger

Last month, the Railroad Commission of Texas rejected an argument that drilling activity was to blame for methane migrating into a North Texas neighborhood's water supply. But independent geoscientists remain divided on the issue.

By Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune, and Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Steve Lipsky shows the methane contamination of his well by igniting the gas with a lighter outside his family's home in Parker County near Weatherford, Texas on June 17, 2014.

WEATHERFORD — Steve Lipsky has nearly everything he needs on his 14-acre estate along the Brazos River, west of Fort Worth. The estate includes a guesthouse, a resort-style swimming pool and a seven-bathroom, 15,000-square-foot home where he lives with his wife and three children. But the Wisconsin transplant, who makes a living bundling mortgages, lacks one item that most people take for granted: a reliable supply of clean drinking water.

“All I want to say is, I don’t want to live here anymore,” said Lipsky, who pays $1,000 a month to truck in water from Weatherford, which he filters and stores.

So much methane has migrated into water wells in his neighborhood in the last three years, Lipsky said, that he and at least one neighbor can light their flowing water ablaze. It is a phenomenon they blame on nearby drilling activity in the gas-rich Barnett Shale, which lies thousands of feet below the Trinity aquifer.

But in a report released last month, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas, rejected that argument and effectively shut the door on its investigation. The move came as independent geoscientists remained divided about the cause of the rapid increase of methane in the neighborhood’s water, with some fearing that the Railroad Commission was too quick to dismiss potential evidence of groundwater contamination from oil and gas drilling.

“I can’t understand,” said Rob Jackson, a geoscientist at Stanford University who has studied the effects of drilling activity on groundwater contamination. If the water quality deteriorated in neighborhoods, Jackson said, “wouldn’t that suggest to you that you might want to keep monitoring what’s happening in that situation?” Three other scientists asked to review the report said more testing was needed to rule out drilling as a factor.

Such questions are the latest in a controversy that has pitted the Railroad Commission — which has long toed the line between industry watchdog and champion — against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and thrust Lipsky into the national discussion of the impacts of oil and gas drilling.

In 2010, the EPA decided that Texas had no plans to act on complaints and charged Range Resources, a Fort Worth-based driller, with tainting the neighborhood’s water with methane, benzene and other substances. The agency ordered the driller to provide drinking water to Lipsky and one of his neighbors. A year after a Railroad Commission investigation cleared the company of all allegations, the EPA withdrew its order as part of a settlement in which Range agreed to share future well testing data.

Throughout the saga, Range has maintained that it is not responsible for the methane and noted that natural gas had migrated into some area water wells before it started drilling in 2006. “Every credible expert and agency that has examined this case over the last four years has determined that Range’s operations in no way caused or contributed to the longstanding and well-documented issue of naturally occurring methane in the Trinity aquifer,” a Range spokesman, Matt Pitzarella, said in an email.

Still, neighborhood residents continued to complain to the Railroad Commission, prompting the agency’s 11-page report in May. The agency found that methane levels had increased in five of seven water wells tested from 2010 to September 2013, and a chemical analysis showed that the gas could have originated from the Barnett, or the much shallower Strawn formation, which lies just beneath the aquifer. Or, the report said, the methane might be the product of the mixing of gases or the oxidation of bacteria.

But citing information on well construction and faults below the surface, the report said evidence was “insufficient” to implicate the driller. The methane “may be attributed” to unrelated processes, including migration from the Strawn, the report concluded. “Further investigation is not planned at this time.”

Jackson, who has published some studies that suggest a link between groundwater contamination and drilling and some that dismiss it, said the data in the latest report could implicate Range because “the water quality is changing.” He noted that levels of ethane and propane in those wells have also increased significantly, and neither of those are naturally occurring elements. He said he also disagreed with the conclusion that Range’s wells were not leaking.

Geoffrey Thyne, the scientist who wrote the report for that led to the 2010 EPA order, said that Texas regulators’ efforts were not thorough and that he believed “evidence is only getting stronger” that drilling had tainted the water. “People are carrying on the debate long distance, in bits and pieces, and I think that’s not the way to go with it,” he said.

Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who has defended oil and gas interests, said “it is darned unlikely that leakage of methane from the Barnett to the surface occurred,” but he was unsure why the commission did not plan to follow-up. “You have to start looking for another source,” he said.

Hugh Daigle, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, called it “very difficult, if not impossible” to draw concrete conclusions from the data in the agency’s report. Gas from the Strawn formation could have even migrated into the Range Resources well and contaminated the water that way, he said. “There’s all kinds of places where the gas could be coming from.”

Through its spokeswoman, Ramona Nye, the commission refused interview requests with the report’s authors or other experts on staff. She said all requests for staff interviews are directed through Milton Rister, the agency’s executive director, and he has vetoed all requests since he joined the agency in October 2012.

Nye said that the agency stood by its report and that conclusions about well construction and seismology were strong enough to trump the inconclusive chemical tests in ruling out drilling as a cause — a result that means the agency lacks jurisdiction to address the problem. The commission would not provide any supplemental data referenced in the report in time for this article’s publication.

That reluctance to share information rankles state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, the chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee. The report’s conclusion was sound, he said, but the agency should be more willing to talk about it.

“If you’re going to be held to the high bar of a fair regulator,” he said, “then you cannot leave any gray area.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.  A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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