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Barnett Water Well Contamination Hearing Under Way in Austin

Witnesses for Range Resources Corp. took the stand Wednesday during the first day of a hearing at the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) in Austin, TX, to defend the company against allegations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that its drilling activities in the Barnett Shale caused the contamination of private water wells in the area. However, EPA representatives were not in attendance.

Last month EPA issued an emergency order against Range, claiming that at least two drinking water wells in Parker County, TX, "have been significantly impacted by...methane contamination" from its oil and gas production facilities in the region. That move sparked a battle of wills between the federal regulator and the RRC, which said it was already investigating the matter (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2010).

Among those testifying on behalf of Range were Mike Middlebrook, Range vice president of operations and a petroleum engineer; Norm Warpinski of Halliburton, an expert on microseismic and hydraulic fracturing; and Mark McCaffrey of Weatherford Laboratories, an expert on geochemical gas fingerprinting.

EPA has used gas fingerprinting technology to link the gas from Range's operations to that found in the contaminated wells. However, McCaffrey testified that "EPA's attempt to perform geochemical gas fingerprinting is fundamentally flawed and cannot be used to match gas from the [contaminated] Lipsky water well to either the Barnett Shale reservoir or to Range's wells or accurately identify the source of the gas," according to pretrial documents.

McCaffrey testified that the gas in the water wells came from the Strawn formation -- which is immediately below the aquifer feeding the wells -- not from the Barnett Shale.

Warpinski told the hearing that hydraulic fracturing could not have caused gas the gas to turn up in the Lipsky water well.

Among the exhibits was an image of a flaring water well that was drilled in the region in 2005. The flames were said to come from naturally occurring gas in the water well.

EPA representatives were asked to attend the hearing but, as expected, did not show. Range has sought in federal court to compel the testimony of EPA officials. The RRC hearing was expected to end Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) filed a complaint against Range to compel its compliance with EPA's Dec. 7 emergency order. "While Range offered to provide two affected residences alternative drinking water and installed explosivity meters in their homes after issuance of the emergency order, it has failed to comply with other requirements to conduct surveys of private and public water wells in the vicinity, to submit plans for field testing, and to submit plans to study how the methane and other contaminants may have migrated from the production wells, in addition to plans to remediate affected portions of the aquifer," DOJ said.

However, Range spokesman Matt Pittzarella told NGI's Shale Daily it should not be up to the company to show "how the methane and other contaminants" migrated from its wells.

"We've done virtually everything that's in there [the order]," Pittzarella said. "We've done the water tests. We've done the soil samples and all that sort of stuff...They said that part of the reason that we're not in compliance is we can't prove to them how our production wells are the cause of the methane. Isn't it logical that they would have a theory as to how that would be the case? They're saying you have to prove to us why you are guilty.

"It doesn't say Range is out of compliance because they haven't been able to demonstrate why they're innocent...They've said part of the problem is they have yet to show us how the gas has migrated."

When asked to comment, EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard referred NGI's Shale Daily to a DOJ spokesman, who declined comment.

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