In an about-face, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday withdrew its 15-month-old emergency order against Range Resources that had blamed the Fort Worth-based drilling company for methane contamination in water wells and demanded that it supply safe drinking water to two Parker County homes.
"Range is very pleased to see that the EPA's order in Parker County has been withdrawn," Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. "It's important for people to know that their environment, health and safety is protected, and hopefully this provides them with that comfort."
The company said the withdrawal could help its $4.2 million defamation lawsuit against Steve and Shyla Lipsky, residents of Parker County's Lake Country Acres subdivision.
Range lodged its counterclaim against the Lipskys after the couple filed a $6.5 million lawsuit, alleging that Range's hydraulic fracturing contaminated their drinking water. But a state district judge dismissed the Lipskys' suit in January, later saying that Steve Lipsky and his environmental consultant had created a "deceptive video" of a methane-spewing water well. Lipsky's attorney, Allen Stewart, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The EPA did not make clear whether its technical staff had reversed its views on the cause of methane contamination, which prompted the Dec. 7, 2010, emergency order.
"Resolving the lawsuits with Range allows EPA to shift the agency's focus in this particular case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction," said Jennah Durant, a Dallas-based EPA spokeswoman. "EPA and Range will share scientific data and conduct further well monitoring in the area, and Range will also provide useful information and access to EPA in support of EPA's scientific inquiry into the potential impacts of energy extraction on drinking water."
After withdrawing the order, the EPA released a letter from Range's attorney, John A. Riley, saying that the company, in connection with the agency's move, committed to sample water at 20 private wells in southern Parker County on a quarterly basis for a year.
With the landowners' approval, it will test for such dissolved gases as carbon dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen and methane, as well as such organic substances as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, Riley said.
Range anticipates starting the tests within 30 days. Pitzarella, the company spokesman, said the agreement is not a quid pro quo deal.
"The additional water testing is something that Range had agreed to do almost year ago," he said. "We would continue as long as necessary within reason [to] test water supplies around that vicinity to provide people with peace of mind that the water was safe. That was something we promised and pledged to the [Texas] Railroad Commission, that we promised and pledged to the residents and now that's something we told the EPA. "Withdrawal of the emergency order speaks for itself."
The Lipskys' well will be among those sampled, he added.
Since the order was issued, Range has insisted that its drilling activities did not cause any contamination of drinking water.
"Our position on this matter has been very consistent," Pitzarella said Friday. "This is an issue of Mother Nature -- naturally-occurring methane not at unsafe levels. It's very manageable."
The EPA's order was opposed by the Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling activity in the state. The commission called the EPA's order "unprecedented" and in March 2011 found that Range was not responsible for the contamination.
"By dropping their court case and enforcement actions, EPA now acknowledges what we at the Railroad Commission have known for more than a year: Range Resources' Parker County gas wells did not contaminate groundwater," commission Chairman Barry Smitherman said in a statement. "This announcement is a vindication of the science-based processes at the Railroad Commission. It is good to see EPA reconsidering their tactics after being rebuked."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a critic of the agency, also weighed in.
"Yet again, EPA has to retreat after an initial overreach," said Matt Letourneau, media director. "The EPA has withdrawn an order after it became clear that they had acted without fully comprehending the details and science behind the case. This represents at least the third case where EPA rushed to judgment against unconventional oil and natural gas development only to find the scientific facts didn't support its rhetoric."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718