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Regulators Pan Study on Methane Gas in Wells

No one disputes that high levels of methane have shown up in several Parker County water wells. But the source of the gas has stirred a heated debate involving homeowners, academics, the Railroad Commission and the EPA.

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 on June 17.

Texas regulators say they put little stock in recent research suggesting that poorly drilled gas wells are allowing methane to seep into a North Texas aquifer, and will not re-examine the high-profile contamination case.

“There are no plans to reopen the investigation,” Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, said Friday.

A peer-reviewed study published in September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that drilling was partially responsible for methane contamination that has tainted drinking water wells in Parker County. The wells, which sit near Barnett Shale drilling sites, are at the center of a years-long saga that thrust a Parker County neighborhood, and mortgage-broker-turned-activist Steve Lipsky, into the national discussion about the impacts of oil and gas drilling.

No one disputes that high levels of methane have shown up in several water wells in the rural Silverado on the Brazos neighborhood. So much gas has migrated into Lipsky’s well, for instance, that he can ignite the stream flowing from it. He pays $1,000 a month to truck in water from Weatherford, which he filters and stores. But the source of the gas – and whether Fort Worth-based Range Resources is to blame – has stirred a heated debate involving homeowners, academics, the Railroad Commission and the federal Environment Protection Agency.

In the most recent effort to plumb the problem, researchers from Duke, Ohio State and Stanford universities, Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester concluded that improperly sealed wells likely caused the contamination.

The Railroad Commission panned the study, and says it has no reason to reopen an investigation it closed in May.

“The commission bases its regulation on science and facts,” Milton Rister, the agency’s executive director, wrote to researchers in a letter dated Oct. 1. He said the latest study “provides no specific evidence or facts" that improperly sealed wells caused the problem, and fails to consider methane that seeped into the aquifer before Range's gas wells were drilled. 

Range, which drilled and operates numerous gas wells in the area, has maintained it is not to blame, and is suing Lipsky for defamation in a case that has reached the Texas Supreme Court. 

“Exhaustive studies have clearly indicated that no aspects of Range's activities caused or contributed to the long-standing and well documented fact that gas is naturally occurring in the Trinity Aquifer," Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, said after the latest study was published.

A key disagreement is whether the methane migrated from the gas-rich Barnett Shale or the shallower Strawn Shale, which lies just beneath the aquifer. If the gas originated in the Strawn – above where the company drilled and blasted – Range could not be responsible, the Railroad Commission and some researchers have suggested. The opposite would be true if research traced the gas to the Barnett.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency charged Range Resources with tainting the wells and ordered the company to provide drinking water to Lipsky and a neighbor. But the agency withdrew that order after the Railroad Commission said Range was not linked to the contamination. 

Following more complaints from Lipsky and his neighbors, the commission took a second look at the contamination. Its report last May said evidence was “insufficient” to implicate the driller. The methane “may be attributed” to unrelated processes, including migration from the shallower Strawn.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science study picked apart mainstream thinking on the contamination case.

“We think this is somewhere in between­ – literally and figuratively,” said Rob Jackson, a geoscientist at Stanford University who co-authored the paper. “We think it’s most likely [gas from the] Strawn, but we think that a subset of homes in that subdivision, their water has been affected by drilling.”

Using geochemical tracers, researchers concluded that Strawn gas seeped into the aquifer without reacting with water or rocks in the earth's crust, meaning it must have leaked straight from one or more gas wells. “The only way that could happen would be that if they came up through a pipe," Thomas Darrah, of Ohio State University, the paper’s lead author, told the Tribune in September.

Neither Jackson nor Darrah responded to requests to comment for this article. But writing for TribTalk earlier this month, Jackson said the commission should re-evaluate its conclusions.

“The Railroad Commission says it 'serves Texas through our stewardship of natural resources and the environment; our concern for personal and community safety; and our support of enhanced development and economic vitality for the benefit of Texans,'” he wrote. "We believe the commission takes that mission seriously. Reopening this investigation would make that clear.”

Rister, in his response to the researchers, said the commission “remains receptive to any new information that may become available.” 

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