Range Resources Corp. Tuesday was cleared of fouling North Texas water wells with natural gas by a unanimous vote of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC). It was vindication for the Fort Worth, TX-based producer and an informal indictment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- not that anyone from the federal agency was at the meeting in Austin, TX, to hear it.

The three commissioners accepted an RRC staff recommendation to find Range not at fault for natural gas found in two North Texas water wells (see Shale Daily, March 9). The RRC staff investigation found that gas in the wells most likely came from the shallower Strawn formation and not the Barnett -- an explanation widely held for months by the energy industry.

"Every scientist and technical expert who has examined the facts have all determined that Range did not cause or contribute to this issue, including those at the EPA," said Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella on Tuesday. "Through science and investigation we also know that nearby families are safe and with fresh drinking water. We will continue to respect the legal process and expect the EPA to rescind their order now that there is definitive scientific evidence of the natural cause and safety of residents. Of course, state regulators and local residents knew this all along."

Last December EPA issued a finding that Range's Barnett Shale activities had tainted the wells, and in an emergency order it demanded that the company take a number of precautionary and remediation measures (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2010). EPA's conclusion that Range was at fault leapfrogged findings of the RRC, which had previously begun an investigation of the matter at the behest of landowners. EPA's involvement was seen by the Texas regulators as another example of the federal government attempting to usurp the regulatory sovereignty of the Lone Star State.

At the RRC's bimonthly conference it took commissioners 28 minutes to hear the presentation of the Range case findings, discuss the matter and vote. There were accolades for Range for its "aggressive defense" and condemnation for EPA for its "hasty determination" of the company's guilt. Commissioners noted EPA's absence at the meeting as well as the fact that it did not participate in the RRC hearing process on the Range matter.

Alluding to a recently completed Sunset Review of the RRC that could lead to its renaming and reconfiguration (see Daily GPI, Jan. 14), Chair Elizabeth Jones noted that "Texas-style stewardship might be different from the federal government;" however, the RRC represents the "gold standard among states" for energy regulation.

"We at the Railroad Commission are very concerned about the environment, the water in Texas, and we're determined to protect it, but we're also determined to look at hard scientific evidence and facts. And we don't want to destroy the economy for no good reason," said Commissioner David Porter.

Commissioner Michael Williams noted his 25 years as an "enforcement official" and said of EPA's treatment of Range, "I've never seen somebody make an allegation against an entity and not give them the opportunity to defend themselves."

State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland ), chair of the House Energy Committee, was also at the meeting. He said Texas lawmakers breathed a "sigh of relief" when the RRC staff investigation was released. He said the RRC findings should be broadcast nationally.

"[EPA] did all this on no facts," Keffer said. "It was certainly hype. They thought they'd found a smoking gun...I think they've fallen on their face...We do need to make a big deal out of this.

"The federal EPA doesn't care about what they do to good companies...EPA is certainly in many, many parts of our life now that they shouldn't be in, and that is a fight worthy to take on."

Evidence presented during the hearing included geochemical gas fingerprinting that demonstrated the gas in the domestic water wells most likely came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface. The natural gas tested did not match the gas produced by Range from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5,000 feet below the surface in that area.

Range also presented information to demonstrate that the two Range gas wells were mechanically sound, without any leaks. Evidence presented at the hearing showed that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area could not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and shallow aquifers from which water wells in the area produce.