Six Republican members of the U.S. Senate -- including Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn -- have requested an investigation of the EPA's decision to accuse a natural gas producer of contaminating a North Texas water well.
In a letter sent last week, the senators asked the EPA inspector general to "determine if EPA followed proper procedures" in issuing an endangerment order -- the first of its kind in the history of Texas oil and gas -- against Fort Worth-based Range Resources in December 2010. Water sampling of a Parker County well performed by the agency found high levels of natural gas it believed was associated with fracking operations and levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, above safe drinking water standards.
"Following the issuance of the order, EPA officials made numerous public statements definitively incriminating Range Resources as the responsible party and implicating them as creating 'a danger of fire or explosion,'" the letter reads. "The press statement released with the order also referred to hydraulic fracturing four times with little context, leading the public to infer the process was somehow involved."
The senators questioned whether the EPA had documented a concrete and substantial danger to human life before issuing the order. To be sure, the levels of benzene the agency detected were alarming enough, but the county fire marshal said the prodigious off-gassing of the water well caused him to fear for the safety of Steve Lipsky and his family. His hydrocarbon detectors, he remarked, went "bonkers" when he was 20 feet away. To this day, Lipsky is unable to use his water.
The letter went after the weaknesses in the EPA's investigation as well. In particular, the senators asked whether the agency assessed the possibility of naturally occurring gas entering Lipsky's well. In a deposition, an official admitted the agency had performed no investigation into other geological strata that could be responsible for the methane contamination. Lipsky's attorney, on the other hand, would point to the timing of the contamination: It didn't begin, they allege, until several months after Range began fracking the gas well.
More to the point, the senators wanted to know what evidence the EPA discovered that led to its withdrawal of the endangerment order at the end of March. Had it discovered definitively that it was wrong about Range? Or did it simply chose to put an end to ongoing litigation with the company after Range agreed to perform water testing on surrounding wells for a year?
It's election year, and Republicans are attempting to paint President Barack Obama as anti-fossil fuel. This letter, signed by major beneficiaries of the industry's political-action largesse like Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, reeks of a political witch hunt. But it's that last question -- what does the EPA now know about what happened in Parker County -- that we'd all like an answer to.
H/T Texas Sharon