State and EPA Battle Over Fracking, Flaming Well Water

When Steve Lipsky blamed fracking for turning his water well into a flamethrower, he set off an epic battle between the EPA and Texas.

State and EPA Battle Over Fracking, Flaming Well Water

Steve Lipsky gripped a garden hose and held it at arm's length, staring as a guttering tongue of fire poured from its end and grew another foot before his eyes.

"Look at that," he said in awe as the flame, liquid and sinuous, licked the rural darkness outside his home in Parker County. "It's getting bigger. Holy cow! Look at that. We're up to five feet. That's not even, what, 25 minutes? We could do this a lot bigger."

As the fire blazed and was recorded on a video camera during the summer of 2010, water poured from a nearby length of pipe atop the well that once supplied drinking water to his family's home. Since at least Christmas the year before, Lipsky would testify later, his submersible pump had coughed, sputtered and struggled to fill a 5,000-gallon holding tank with water. He hired a well-service tech to replace the pump, but found a very different problem: natural gas, and lots of it.

A Texas Railroad commissioner called for the firing of EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz.
Mark Graham
A Texas Railroad commissioner called for the firing of EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz.
Alisa Rich cruises backroads, armed with a camcorder, looking for oil-field leaks and spills.
Jay Barker
Alisa Rich cruises backroads, armed with a camcorder, looking for oil-field leaks and spills.

For months Lipsky had felt as though something was wrong with him. He was often tired and nauseated. In panicked moments, he feared he was dying of cancer. Perhaps this would explain it all — the pump, the tap water that foamed, the flaming hose.

Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott was the first authority to see the fire trick. After blowing off Lipsky as an imaginative crank, in July 2010 Scott finally pulled up to Lipsky's palatial, 15,000-square-foot manse, at the end of a live oak-lined inlet off the Brazos River, just upriver from Lake Granbury.

"Mr. Lipsky turned on the valve at the top of the wellhead and said, 'Watch this,'" Scott recalls. Water gushed from the wellhead. A few flicks of a lighter, and water and flame poured forth together.

Scott, a good-natured but level-headed hulk, ordered him to snuff it out immediately. Lipsky turned, and the growing flame swept the wellhead, accidentally igniting a second fire. "That got us both a little stirred up there because now we got an uncontrolled flame coming from the top of the water well," Scott says. "That was the first time I'd ever seen that."

Scott radioed his assistant fire marshal and told him to bring his tools from downtown Weatherford, a 30-minute drive down two-lane roads. He needed to see just how much gas was coming from Lipsky's well.

"We got within 20 feet of that well and the hydrocarbon detector was going bonkers, full indication," Scott says. "I couldn't get any closer because you risk burning up the sensors. This is in open air. It's not like we were in a house."

Instead, Scott used a less sensitive monitor to gauge gas concentrations. "Anything above 5 percent, we start getting nervous. It went to 12 or 14 percent in nothing flat, which is definitely within the explosive range."

There was little Scott could do. Lipsky had a theory for the source of his gas, and the culprit was beyond Scott's reach. Lipsky had checked the Texas Railroad Commission's Web site and learned that two natural gas wells, drilled horizontally, ran practically beneath his home. "We really can't touch those guys at all," Scott says.

So, Lipsky contracted with a consultant out of Flower Mound. Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental considered herself a watchdog of the gas production industry. She's known to cruise the backroads of Denton and Tarrant counties with a camcorder in hand, watching for oilfield spills and leaks, often proclaiming that "the wolf is on the prowl." Lipsky hired her to test his water alongside an investigator from the Railroad Commission, a powerful regulatory body that oversees the state's oil and gas industry.

Even before she had finished sampling on August 17, 2010, Rich was worried. Lipsky's tap water effervesced like Alka-Seltzer. It made her glass sampling containers slippery, as though it had been spiked with lubricant. More than a week later, lab results bolstered her suspicions: His well had been polluted by nearby fracking operations, she believed. Rich advised Lipsky to stop using the water. His wife, Shyla, and their 18-month-old, and six- and seven-year-old children should stay away, she told him. Gas could be building up inside the house. Lipsky moved into the guesthouse and stopped using the water. His wife and children extended their routine summer stay with her parents in Graham.

Meanwhile, the results of water quality tests performed by the Railroad Commission came in. They found levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, above the threshold limit for drinking water. Yet the agency did not act, nor did it have an answer yet for the fire Lipsky could ignite. But he and Rich believed they did: It could be no coincidence, they thought, that the two gas wells beneath his home had been fracked just months before Lipsky first noticed his failing pump. Dissatisfied with the commission's pace, Rich reached out to a contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With a single phone call, another kind of blaze was set.

From the moment the documentary Gasland injected fracking into the public consciousness, the image of flaming tap water was its grim totem. YouTube is populated with videos of people near gas drilling sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas holding cigarette lighters to drinking water giving off ghostly flares — an inchoate indictment of drilling more anecdotal than scientific. But they've gained currency among aggrieved landowners and environmentalists. The cause, they believe, is a controversial method of gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." It involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into shale formations, like Texas's Barnett Shale, as deep as a mile beneath the surface at pressures reaching 15,000 pounds per square inch. The goal is to shatter the rock with a blast of fluid and release natural gas from its pores. It's not a new technology, but the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is, and it has transformed vast but unprofitable gas-bearing formations into an energy boom, one President Barack Obama says could fuel America for a century.

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29 comments
jackie.raesly
jackie.raesly

I attended a conference and personally talked to Mr Lipsky - this is real and to think this is naturally occuring at this rate or that it is a coincidance that this is happening to Lipsky and other residents in OTHER STATES next to fracking sites is ridiculous. Dont be naive and read between the lines the industry has their money in everyones pocket. I dont think they became billionaires by giving a sh*t about people and the air we breathe and the water we drink.

deneisac
deneisac

I have fracked gas wells and oil wells I can see and hear from my porch. These wells have been producing for years. I also have a private water well, as does everyone in my community. My property has many natural springs that feed my water well. There is gas wells all over this area. It's also a big cattle area, many stock ponds. The 2nd largest man made lake in the US here and gas wells all around the 600+ miles of shoreline. Many areas around the lake have private water wells. There has never been a contaminated water well in any of the areas, no stock ponds contaminated or any evidence of the fracking contaminating the lake. We have areas of methane gas you can actually lite on fire in some swampy areas. Those areas were there years before any gas wells were.drilled. Methane gas can infiltrate water wells naturally. At times drilling water wells pockets of methane gas is drilled into. I watched a EPA video where the EPA rep and anti fracking fool jimmied the gas-water seperater so the gas would come through the water side so the water would burn. The video was suppose to prove a contaminated well from fracking. But being I knew what I was looking at I saw the deceit and intentional closing of the gas pigtail so the gas went through the water side.

Eric Ryan
Eric Ryan

This "Water on Fire" business is ridiculous. How incredibly frightening is this? http://shalestuff.com/educatio... This article was the first place I found out about this fire water stuff. This site has other good articles, too. Read them. Look at both sides. There is no denying the economic impact is great, but there is no denying that the environment is being hurt beyond fixing. Our residents deserve better treatment, and higher regulations of drilling procedures.

Mari
Mari

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S. Thomas Bond
S. Thomas Bond

It's truly remarkable how many people know all about fracking without benefit of observation. They seem to know by ESP or perhaps as a branch of their religion (neoconservatism).

Those that observe always see sickness from the fumes, destroyed water tables, loss of property value, and uglification of the scene. Makes no difference what your education or background is, just whether you use your powers of observation.

The easy oil is gone, the easy gas is gone, the easy coal is gone and the atmosphere is rapidly gaining CO2, even thought one third dissolves in the oceans.

The dreamers of wealth need to move their minds to reality and think about alternate energy or heaven. If they don't, all humans will be in a real hell.

Madisonian2
Madisonian2

Nice turn of events here. The jerk in charge of this region of the EPA who wants to "crucify" the energy companies just resigned in disgrace. The EPA issued a statement saying they were wrong in Parker County. We need an environmental watchdog, but the EPA is off the chain, and getting worse. Maybe after November we can clean up a little, and thin out the Marxists in the current administration.

Anthem281
Anthem281

Just an update: Al Armendariz resigned today. Apparently he was "disgraced" because of a remark he made about crucifying companies that were violating environmental laws.http://www.chron.com/news/arti...

lemminghunter
lemminghunter

@Anthem281 -- except he proved by going after Range Resources that it wasn't about those companies that were violating environmental laws, but his plan to "crucify" oil & gas companies per se. Your convenient wording is a good example of how liberals lie and how liberals have conveniently pliable "principles." Or are simply ignorant.

S. Thomas Bond
S. Thomas Bond

If you believe fracking doesn't go wrong, you doubtless also think the earth isn't warming, and the thin blue atmosphere can absorb all the solid and liquid carbon compounds from thousands of geological formations. You also believe water is cheap and you will always be able to buy it -somewhere.

Little children don't want to think ahead - they want to do what they want when they want to. Adults have a more severe discipline and must restrain their children for the child's own safety.

The same problems occur where ever shale drilling occurs - everyone knows what is going on. But as Upton Sinclair said, " It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

I think the point of the story is "law has to do not so much with truth, as with power." If this was not true, why would money have so much to do with "justice?"

lemminghunter
lemminghunter

@ S. Thomas Bond, you set up your little cliched denigration by asserting a false premise. No one I have heard on the pro-energy side has ever suggested that fracking "doesn't go wrong." This is the kind of taunt, the deliberate exaggeration, that children -- or childish thinkers -- make in order to presume the moral authority to justify their faith in centralized government.

Tim0
Tim0

I try not to get too hard on the anti-fracking crowd.. I do try to enlighten them to the facts, but it's not entirely their fault.. this country thrives on the perpetuation on nonsense.. and it's not the 'left' or the 'right' that is guilty.. it's just business as usual in America

Look at how this very article was written. Most people are not going to make it past page 3, they will have gathered enough to rant about it at work and formulate a biased opinion.. but, what happens after page 3? oh, evidence and people who actually know what they are talking about.. well, facts aren't very interesting are they?

Americans will believe anything you put on tv.. if you can convince someone of something (regardless of how ridiculous it sounds), that person will help you convince others!! People used to live to be 900 years old? There was a talking snake with evil intentions? A man lived inside of a whale? If the masses go for that sort of fantastical bologna, you know they'll get hysterical over "my water is on fire"!

Anthem281
Anthem281

I think that you are wrong about people not reading beyond page 3. This was a compelling and well-written article. You are correct when you say that Americans do not like facts. Most Americans outside of the areas that are experiencing the negative side of "fracking" do not know anything at all about natural gas drilling. The only thing that most Americans hear over and over again is how wonderful big business is and how great our oil companies are for saving us and how bad Obama is because he is trying to "stop" them from "making us energy independent". Really Obama is being a total push over when it comes to this issue - drilling and exploration have increased under this administration. All he doing is monitoring and attempting to regulate the environmental impact of the energy industry. Who could blame him when the largest oil spill in recorded history happened on his watch? To be blunt, I don't like the tone you take regarding the "anti-fracking crowd". Are you 100% sure that fracking is not related to the contamination of people's drinking water? What if it does turn out to be true? Will you become one of the millions of fact hating Americans? All people in these areas want is answers as to why for many years prior to fracking they had clean drinking water and now they have water that lights on fire as it comes out of their faucets.

andy
andy

We are an energy dependent country that is looking for cheap energy. Fracking now seems a quick method to provide this energy and, for some, to become rich in the process. I don't object to the safe exploration and discovery of natural resources. What I do object to is the exploitation of these resources at the cost of the environment and the health and well being of the people in the area.

If fracking is safe then why is there such resistance to comply with the Clean Water Act? It should be simple. Why is there no disclosure on the constituents in fracking fluids used in the process of extracting natural gas? If they aren't harmful, then disclose them.

Fracking is proposed in Western MD from the Marcellus Shale. I'd suggest sampling the water quality in wells, aquifers, streams, lakes, and rivers in any area surrounding a proposed drilling site prior to any drilling. A comparison can then be made at a later date to see if there are any detrimental effects from drilling.

Let's take ownership of this issue now. Let's admit we don't know all the answers instead of patently denying liability. If Lipsky's well is producing so much gas, why won't Range Resources buy his land to safely capture the gas that is now venting into the atmosphere.

Tim Ruggiero
Tim Ruggiero

You're right about people believing what they see on TV. If this weren't true, then Exxon, American Petroleum Institute, America's Natural Gas Alliance and others wouldn't be advertising non stop about all of the so-called 'benefits' of natural gas. Exxon's Sr. Engineer Artis Brown says that the "Keystone XL has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs". In the new ad, speaking to the proposed extension line off the Keystone, he now says this alone has the potential to create "A half million jobs". I'd love to know exactly what those jobs are, how long those jobs are expected to last, and how Exxon developed this 'fact'. Realistically, with a sitting president with approval ratings in the proverbial toilet, unemployment at 9, maybe 10% (14% in CA) and literally millions more on the brink, one would think Obama couldn't sign that bill fast enough-if what Exxon says is true. Keep in mind that Exxon is the same group of warm hearted, caring individuals that still to this day have oil not two feet down in the sand on the beaches of Valdez from that little drunken sailor problem they had and have yet to clean up or pay one dime in fines.

alphamyass
alphamyass

Don't mess with Texas' Oil! Cause we don't care how much we destory the earth or our kid's health cause we need a new golf cart! YEE HAW!

H_e_x
H_e_x

You say debilitating diseases, I say jobs.

Miriamwe
Miriamwe

Speaking of Pavlovian responses. Do you live in an irony free zone, or what?

Alpha4998
Alpha4998

This fracking "controversy" is an unadulterated political contrivance. What's really happening is that the neo-utopians of the political left fear that frac'ing has given us a game changing abundance of domestic oil and gas that will strangle their not ready for prime time renewable energy projects in the crib--and they're right, compare the cost per unit of energy of oil/gas with wind/solar. Reasoning, like any good progressive all ooey-gooey with smarter- and more-virtuous-than-thou self-regard, that you can never underestimate the intelligence of the masses (Et tu, Mr. President?), they've tried to generate a groundswell of opposition to this fossil fuel bounty by scaring the bejesus out of the slobbering Pavlovians that comprise a fair slice of the voting base of the Democratic party. Oil . . . drip; oil company . . . drip; frac . . . drip; gas in the water supply . . . drippity drip drip

The truth, of course, is that just about every well ever drilled can cause problems, including contamination of fresh water zones, if it isn't properly drilled, completed and maintained. It's also true that gas can seep into fresh water zones through natural mechanisms. Frac'ing operations, which have been around since the late 1940's and in common use since the 1980's, are almost always conducted thousands of feet of solid rock below the fresh water zones and have nothing to do with gas coming out of someone's faucet. In other words, a frac'd well is no more risky than an unfrac'd well. Really. No kidding. While it's true that there are some additional operational issues involving frac'd wells--mainly the handling and disposal of the large volume of fluids that are recovered during completion--that isn't very scary and not politically useful to the anti-fossil fuel crowd.

We don't need a politicized EPA highjacking the oil business from Washington, saddling us with another economically arbitrary, top down, one size fits all nanny state regulatory regime--particularly for contrived reasons. Drilling and completion is already effectively regulated, every day, by the agencies in the producing states and no one with any real knowledge of the oil business thinks otherwise. People need to educate themselves about this, at least slightly, ferchissake.

Iluvfracking
Iluvfracking

This comment was sponsored by the good and honest folks at the American Oil and Gas industry. The motto is "you give us paychecks and we will believe anything we are told". It is a perfectly logical approach to not having to face any ethical or moral dilemmas.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Glad to know that pumping chemicals in the ground in completely safe.

Mirror
Mirror

The chemicals are a small component of frac fluid. It's mostly water and sand. I've seen them mix it and stuck my hand in it. Moreover, the chemicals that are used are pretty benign--you've got worse stuff under your kitchen sink and a lot of it comes back up as the well starts to produce. You can confirm all this with a 30 second google search and the truth is going to interfere with your political POV. Educate yourself.

Ralphon
Ralphon

Although it varies by area and operator, the real range is about 2-5 millions gallons per horizontal shale well. That sounds like a lot until you look into how much water is used on golf courses, swimming pools, and for agricultural and industrial operations--and consider that operators are figuring out how to recycle it for use on the next well, as well as how to use non-potable water. While the chemicals in frac fluids aren't very dangerous--think soap and cleaning solutions--what comes back to the surface is managed in closed systems or held in lined pits pending either recycling or disposal in injection wells.

Can something go wrong? Sure, these are sophisticated industrial operations that carry some degree of risk and there's always the bozo factor, but it doesn't happen very often, when it does happen it's usually easily managed, and the industry is constantly improving. I would submit that all of this fear mongering is really just uninformed political point of view--amped up by election year hysteria. Google with an open mind. You might be surprised how the world really works.

Tim Ruggiero
Tim Ruggiero

I've also done the research, and Industry loves to say that frack fluid is 'only 1-2 percent' of the mix, it's mostly water. Of course, saying '1-2 percent' sounds much more palatable than saying it in terms of gallons. Each well requires 5-7 MILLION gallons of water. Aside from the fact that not one drop can be returned safely to the hydrological cycle, that 'small amount' of chemicals is is at least 50,000 gallons. So, do you think that Industry ALWAYS represents this number as a percent, rather than in gallons just coincidentally?

H_e_x
H_e_x

I've done the research, and I have come to a completely different conclusion. The small amounts do not take away from the danger involved. If that were the case, then a bite from a Black Mamba wouldn't be of any concern because only a small amount of poison is released.

Richard Doll
Richard Doll

Living isn't completely safe either. Most of us die. Until then I want to drive my SUV and motorcycle. I guess you ride a bike? If so, oil or natural gas was required to make it genius.

Tim Ruggiero
Tim Ruggiero

When a gas company comes along, and drops a drill rig 100 feet outside your back door, then proceeds to blast you with diesel exhaust 24/7, have spills leaks and constant emissions, just remember-you have a SUV and a motorcycle-and it was all entirely due to that drill rig in your back yard.

H_e_x
H_e_x

I had no idea I rode a bike, thanks for clarifying that for me. I had no idea my bike had four wheels and an engine, but I'm no automotive engineer.And no shit we all die. That doesn't mean we should make life more dangerous or fill it with more chemicals. Following your logic (and I use the term loosely), you wouldn't mind living on a toxic Superfund site.

 
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