Two scientists say they’ve found higher levels of methane in Parker County water wells, raising new concerns for residents where a federal emergency order was issued against Fort Worth’s Range Resources in 2010.
One of the scientists, Geoffrey Thyne, said he believes that the methane in the water wells is likely coming from the Barnett Shale and Range’s gas wells. But Range maintains that the methane is naturally migrating to the wells from another geologic formation.
In August, the Texas Railroad Commission sent inspectors to measure methane levels at four homes in the Silverado subdivision in far southern Parker County after residents complained that independent sampling by Duke University researchers revealed high levels of the explosive gas in their residential wells.
Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman at the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, said this week that the agency will release additional information when its investigation is complete, possibly in February.
Among the homeowners whose wells were inspected is Steven Lipsky, whose complaints about methane in his water prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue the emergency order against Range. At the time, Range was operating two natural gas wells about a mile from the homes. They have since been sold to Houston-based Legend Natural Gas.
Range vigorously contested the EPA’s order and the Railroad Commission determined that the company’s wells were not the source of the methane.
In March 2012, the EPA withdrew its emergency order against Range. As part of an agreement, the company tested 20 nearby water wells every three months for a year.
Range Resources has no evidence that the methane gas in the well water and the gas produced from its drilling activity were the same, company spokesman Matt Pitzarella said in an email. Range has maintained that the gas in the water is naturally occurring. Pitzarella said that Range’s tests did not find dangerous levels of methane in the water, and the company encourages all homeowners to vent their wells to allow methane to escape into the air.
But Thyne and Robert Jackson, a Duke professor, say they found dangerous levels of methane in the wells. Their findings are likely different from Range’s because the oil and gas industry typically uses a different sampling method, Thyne said.
Jackson found higher levels of methane in some water wells — sometimes five to 10 times higher — than what Range’s tests showed. In some cases, the levels are five times higher than the 10 parts per million per liter set as a threshold limit by the U.S. Geological Survey.
For example, Elizabeth Struhs, whose property abuts Lipsky’s, fears her family is in danger. Jackson’s samples found 17 parts per million of methane per liter of water in her well, while Range Resources said its tests did not detect any hazardous methane level.
“We had good water before they came here and we should have good water now,” Struhs told The Associated Press.
Another neighbor, Shelly Perdue, recently told Bloomberg News that Duke’s methane measurements were also much higher than Range’s.
“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests. It doesn’t make sense,” Perdue said.
Pitzarella told Bloomberg News the company “used state and federally approved testing methodologies that are internationally recognized, and those results have found historically consistent water quality.”
Lipsky told the Star-Telegram last month that methane in his wells has worsened. During a visit to his property, he lit one well’s vent pipe, which eventually mounted to a rippling orange flame about four feet long.
Water from the same well also will catch fire as it pours from a pipe that was previously connected to his home. Yet, he said, Range’s tests showed minimal methane concentrations.
He now has water trucked onto his property for use in his home, he said.
Range Resources declined to comment on Jackson’s findings, saying he has not shared the results. Some homeowners have released Duke’s findings for their own wells.
Jackson said his study — funded by Duke and the National Science Foundation — will not be released until it is peer-reviewed and published. But he told the AP that “we’re seeing high methane concentrations and that result alone indicates to me that EPA closing the case was premature.”
“The leak continues and it’s spreading,” Thyne told The Associated Press. “I can say, based on the current data, there are at least two other wells that show the same source … which is the Range well.”
Thyne’s study includes isotopic analysis. This fingerprint-type analysis allowed him to review the unique chemical makeup of the gas found in the water wells and compare it to the gas Range Resources is producing and methane in a rock formation called the Strawn.
At the 2011 Railroad Commission hearing, Range presented evidence that the gas in Lipsky’s well originated from the Strawn formation, and the three-member Railroad Commission concurred.
Thyne had already reviewed some data for the EPA after it opened its investigation in 2010, but in recent months he did a more thorough analysis. Now, after a preliminary review, Thyne said he is more convinced the gas in at least three of the water wells originates in the Barnett Shale, from which Range’s wells produce, and is identical to what is found in the company’s well bore.
At first glance, it may appear that the gas in the Strawn and Barnett layers are indistinguishable, “but in fact, people are able to notice subtle differences,” Thyne said.
On Dec. 24, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said its own internal investigation showed that the EPA was justified in issuing the emergency order. It suggested taking additional measures to ensure there is no risk.
The EPA has shared Range Resources’ test results with the Railroad Commission but “no immediate next steps” are planned, said David Bloomgren, an EPA spokesman in Dallas, in an email.
Officials from the two agencies met this week, Nye of the Railroad Commission said.
Staff writer Jim Fuquay contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press and Bloomberg News.