A few years ago, in a case fracking opponents believed was the smoking gun they'd been waiting for, the Texas Railroad Commission sided with the industry. It said that Parker County homeowner Steve Lipsky's gaseous and incredibly flammable water well was a product of naturally occurring, biogenic methane originating in the aquifer.
Gas driller Range Resources, the commission ruled, was not to blame for Lipsky's flaming water. What it did not mention, however, was that after Lipsky complained about the gas, the commission sent Range a notice of violation, according to Brett Shipp's story last night on WFAA-TV. Commission inspectors had detected gas pressure on Range's wellhead -- a sign that something could be amiss.
As I reported back in April 2012, thousands of feet of Range's well bore between the aquifer above and the gas-bearing shale below were not lined with cement. This huge section was left exposed. That in itself might not be a problem, but the exposed section cut through the Strawn formation, a geological feature that also holds natural gas. Per the regulator's own rules, "productive horizons" or "gas formations" have to be cemented in to prevent the gas from migrating up the well bore and potentially seeping into aquifers.
Experts from Cornell and Texas A&M say Range should have done that anyway. In Lipsky's legal battle against Range, his experts have contended that this might be why Lipsky has gas in his water.
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In a response to the commission obtained by Shipp, Range apparently proposed pumping cement down the well bore "to eliminate any chance that gas could be migrating from any zone down below."
It never did. The Commission dropped the violation and eventually exonerated Range in a hearing that appeared to be as much a swipe at the EPA as it was an honest, fact-finding inquiry. I was troubled back then by the commission's incredibly cozy ties with the industry, a fact the Texas Sunset Commission has lamented to no avail. Elizabeth Ames Jones was about to be named chairperson of the commission. She was also a candidate for Texas Senate. And Range Resources had in the recent past had a financial interest in several wells owned by a now-defunct company run by Ames Jones' father and husband.
Range now says the rule it allegedly violated applies only to "commercially productive zones," though the actual code reads much more broadly.
And the commission? It says it doesn't decide what is and is not commercially productive. Range Resources does.