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.

If the EPA's investigation had been flawed and the commission's ruling preordained, Richter would later admit that his own investigation was limited to a review of the commission hearing transcript. He conducted no independent testing of his own.

As the Lipskys' case against Range proceeded, the truth remained buried deep underground.
_____________________

Before the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling opened up the gas formations a mile below the earth's surface, no one expected another drilling bonanza in Texas. Then the industry found out about the shale dispersed over 5,000 square miles of North Texas. Turned out, that shale had a sweet spot, a pocket where a fracked well would flow and flow. That spot was in Parker County.

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.

Weatherford, the county seat, was once a tiny ranch town, but between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, its population grew by 25 percent. Two-lane roads grew clogged with well-service trucks headed out into the county, and with big rigs hauling lengths of stacked pipe and fracking fluid. With the traffic came money like Parker County had never seen. Its tax rolls have increased by 33 percent since the boom began around 2005, chief appraiser Larry Hammonds says.

Chain fast-food restaurants, big-box stores, ubiquitous road construction crews and auto dealerships with shiny, late-model 4X4s sprouted. At night, the lights of derricks burned on the horizon like low-hanging stars.

The explosive growth came with a price.

Landowners quickly learned that in Texas, whoever possesses the mineral rights below their property has the upper hand in negotiations. A driller with a lease to mineral rights can't be stopped, nor can the diesel rigs rumbling at all hours, pulverizing roads.

Fire Marshal Shawn Scott struggled to keep an eye on an industry that appeared to overwhelm the state. "[The Railroad Commission's] database...couldn't keep up with the number of wells going into our county," he says. "So, other than the fact that we'd go out and see derricks set up and see guys drilling, it'd be months before the permits would hit the Web site so we could see what was going on."

For every handful of reputable operators, Scott found, there was always one with little regard for the county or its inhabitants. He lost count of all the big rig rollovers he's seen. Worst-case scenario is when fracking fluid, a slurry of brine, surfactants, acids and benzene-laced gas liquids, is involved. His men wore HAZMAT suits during cleanup.

He also has investigated the dumping of used fracking fluid into county ditches, by far a cheaper method of disposal than the state-approved sites. "That's hard to track down," he says. "They don't really leave anything behind other than a trail of dead vegetation."

Easier to locate was a truck hauling sulfuric acid with an unsecured tank lid. Motorists who saw the paint bubbling on the hoods of their vehicles called it in.

Last summer, as drought seared the state and wildfires exploded, he caught an operator preparing to toss a gasoline-soaked rag at a vent to burn off escaping gas. "I got houses all the way around this thing. Dense vegetation, heavy trees all around it. It's prime for a grass fire.

"I understand that we need to produce our own energy locally, and I have no problem with that. But we can do it as good neighbors to the folks around it."
_____________________

Some seven months after the Lipskys sued Range in Parker County district court, Judge Trey Loftin dealt their cause a crippling blow. He concluded he did not have jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit. Their complaint was challenging the findings of the Railroad Commission, and only the Travis County district court in Austin could hear such a challenge, he ruled. Unfortunately, the deadline to petition that court had passed.

A little more than two weeks later, on February 16, 2012, Loftin, who is up for re-election, issued a second, devastating ruling against the Lipskys. Though they could not sue Range in his court, Range could countersue the Lipskys. Range argued that Lipsky and Rich were participants in a civil conspiracy to sully Range's name by making false statements to the media and providing a "misleading" video of a flaming hose to the EPA. It was all a hoax, the company said.

Loftin concluded that a jury might agree. "This demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media with a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning," Loftin wrote. Lipsky, he reasoned, could not set his water on fire, as he so often claimed. The judge believed Lipsky attached the green garden hose to the gas vent to intentionally "alarm the EPA."

His order disregarded the photo filed in evidence of a well-service tech flaring both gas and water from Lipsky's well.

Even Range's own expert, petroleum engineer McBeath, said in his testimony that the water well company had attached the hose to burn the gas off further from the wellhead. The purpose was to avoid an accidental fire, not to conspire against Range. After all, the EPA hadn't based its order on a video. The agency's investigators had seen it all for themselves.

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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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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...

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?"

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"!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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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