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Pennsylvania Attorney General, XTO Trade Barbs as Spill Case Continues

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office has fired back at ExxonMobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy Inc., saying in a court filing that the company's efforts to dismiss criminal charges against it are "nothing more than weak attempts to obfuscate the truth."

Kane's office asked a Lycoming County, PA, judge on Wednesday to throw out XTO's request, which was filed last month (see Shale DailyJune 13). The state filed charges against the company last year after a 2010 well inspection in which regulators discovered an open valve on a wastewater storage tank that had discharged tens of thousands of gallons of fluid containing chlorides, barium, strontium and aluminum (see Shale DailySept. 12, 2013).

In January, a magisterial district judge ruled that XTO would be tried on five counts of unlawful conduct under Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law and three counts of unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act (see Shale DailyJan. 6). The case is the first time criminal charges have been filed in the state against an unconventional oil and gas driller.

In its motion last month, XTO alleged that Kane has unfairly targeted the company, singling it out with social media; an annual report to highlight the company's environmental violations; and by making good on comments she made during her campaign for the attorney general's seat in 2012 that the company claims were slanted against the oil and gas industry. XTO has also continued to allege that the state has failed to prove criminal charges are warranted.

But in its filing Wednesday, Kane's office said the company is liable and suggested that the 2010 spill was not its first at the site in question, adding that there is more than enough evidence to prosecute the company and calling XTO's claims "unconvincing."

At issue in the case is how the valve was opened and who should be held responsible. XTO maintains that the incident was accidental, while the state charges that the company should be held liable regardless. The case has continued to attract widespread attention as it plays out in court (see Shale DailyDec. 19, 2013).

At the time the charges were filed, XTO called them "unprecedented" and "an abuse of prosecutorial discretion." Last year, the company agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty and spend up to $20 million in a settlement with the federal government (see Shale DailyJuly 22, 2013).

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