Whether Range Resources unit Range Production Co. drilling in the Barnett Shale caused alleged water well contamination is a tough call, but it can be made on the evidence available, staff of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) told hearing examiners in its closing statement on the case Tuesday.

“In staff’s opinion, although the answer to the question of whether there is a connection between Range’s Butler and Teal [natural gas] wells and natural gas in the Lipsky water well has proven to be neither obvious nor easy to come by, there is sufficient evidence in the record for the examiners to make an informed and credible decision,” RRC staff said.

In the filing staff said it appreciated Range’s participation in a hearing at the RRC last month and wished that complainant Steven Lipsky and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which in December issued an emergency order against Range related to the contamination — had also participated in the hearing (see Shale Daily, Jan. 21; Dec. 9, 2010).

“Staff would hope both EPA and Mr. Lipsky have been and would continue to provide RRC with any and all information each possesses and deems relevant to the complaint of Mr. Lipsky and the issues in the hearing.”

In summarizing the hearing staff noted that:

“RRC agrees that the samples look different compositionally, but they are similar with regards to isotope carbon-13,” staff said. “This information is not inconsistent with Range’s conclusion that the Lipsky gas is not from the Barnett Shale.”

All along Range has contended that the gas contaminating the water wells came from the Strawn formation and not the Barnett Shale targeted by its gas wells.

“Range used nitrogen/carbon dioxide ratios to show that gas from the Strawn has more nitrogen and less carbon dioxide than gas in the Barnett Shale,” RRC staff said. “However, the data also show that some Barnett Shale samples also have high nitrogen and low carbon dioxide and some Strawn gas samples have low nitrogen and high carbon dioxide. So, a sample with high nitrogen would most likely be from the Strawn…”

Staff said it has not closed its investigation file. It said if the RRC issues an order finding that Range gas did not contaminate the water wells, it will close that portion of its investigation and will decide whether there is a basis for investigating whether are “other potential oil- and gas-related sources (such as historical operations in the Strawn Field) for Strawn gas occurring in water wells in the area.”

In a statement Range said, “[W]e believe that the Railroad Commission and even the EPA is recognizing that this is a long-standing issue that has been well managed by state and local agencies, private citizens and local businesses for decades and is unrelated to Range’s activities. We pledged nearly two months ago that while we know we’re not the cause, we will be part of identifying the issue and we’ve done just that.”