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Friday, January 3, 2014

EPA Watchdog Says Company's Actions in Texas Case Were Appropriate; But Questions Remain

Is the EPA truly accountable to
anyone for its actions?
The long, drawn-out story of the Lipsky well and the EPA's actions against Range Resources is full of accusations and finger-pointing.  Many have sided against Range Resources and Texas Railroad Commission, while others have claimed that the EPA was out of line for its handling of the situation.

A report from the EPA's Office of Inspector General says that the EPA's actions in the matter conformed to the agency's standards.

From the OIG report (click here to see the whole thing):
Region 6’s issuance of the emergency order to Range Resources under Section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the region’s subsequent enforcement actions, conformed to agency guidelines, regulations and policy. 
The region’s interactions with state officials and other stakeholders were appropriate and within Section 1431 guidelines.
 However, the oil and gas industry is not accepting that conclusion.

From Energy in Depth:
To recap: In December of 2010, then-EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz sent a gleeful email to local activists, thanking them for “educating” him about shale development and imploring them to “Tivo channel 8″ because his office was “about to make a lot of news.” Shortly thereafter, Armendariz issued an endangerment order against local operator Range Resources for supposedly contaminating private water wells in the region with methane gas. Subsequent investigations proved that the methane did not originate from Range’s operations, that homeowners in the area had methane in their water long before Range’s operations ever began, and that one resident even drilled her water well into a methane bearing rock formation. EPA emails and the agency’s own statements under oath showed that the investigation leading to the endangerment order was inadequate, and that basic tests to determine the origin of the gas were not undertaken. State regulators, after a hearing during which massive evidence was presented challenging EPA’s findings (to which the EPA was invited but refused to attend),determined Range’s operations “have not contributed and are not contributing to contamination of any domestic water wells.” Oddly enough, more than a year after the endangerment order, the EPA was still looking for evidence to justify its actions.
In the summer of 2012, six U.S. Senators, led by Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), asked EPA for an investigation into the agency’s actions leading up to the issuance of the Dec. 2010 order. The Office of Inspector General began that investigation and published its report on December 20th, 2013, although the IG didn’t get around to releasing its findings until this week — on Christmas Eve.
Despite all of these facts and demonstrable failures, the EPA’s OIG asserts that the agency somehow did not violate any rules or standards. The OIG never references the shocking emails between Armendariz and local activists, nor the one from the local consultant who developed the “strategy” on how to get EPA involved in the case (that same consultant added that “it is worth every penny if we can get jurisdiction to EPA“). Also omitted was any mention of the fact that EPA scientists themselves were questioning the wisdom of an endangerment order before it was issued. Here’s what EPA scientist Dr. Doug Beak said in November 2010, the month before the order was issued:
“[T]his is not conclusive evidence because of the limited data set…The only way now to compare the data would be to make assumptions to fill in data gaps and I don’t believe we have enough experience at this site or data to do this at this time.” (emphasis added)
The OIG’s conclusion is a window into the destructive impact that EPA regulation of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) would have on U.S. energy production. If all of the factors that went into EPA’s order against Range were justified, what exactly would it take to determine the EPA acted inappropriately?
Further raising questions for some is the OIG's statement that the EPA doesn't need any actual evidence of contamination or of a driller's involvement in causing contamination before it can shut down drilling operations.

From The Hill:
The IG report also defends EPA’s order on the basis that the agency does not even need evidence to shut down oil and gas development. If that sounds outrageous, it’s because it is. “For the EPA to take and enforce a Section 1431 emergency order,” the IG concluded, “it needs neither proof that contamination has already occurred nor proof that the recipient of the order is responsible for the contamination.” 
To sum up, the EPA was able to “crucify” an oil and gas operator in Texas without evidence, and the entity whose job is to keep EPA in check determined the agency did nothing wrong. In order to arrive at that determination, the watchdog not only had to rewrite history, but also affirmed that the EPA does not need proof to accuse oil and gas operators of wrongdoing. 
If the EPA can do all of that without violating any rules or laws, then what exactly can the agency not do?
And so, with each new wrinkle, this story gains new life and continues to be a significant matter for both sides of the fracking debate.

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