A federal watchdog is investigating Environmental Protection Agency enforcement actions against a Texas natural gas company that the agency claimed contaminated drinking water through its drilling activities in the state.
The investigation, initiated in July 2012 but announced publicly for the first time on Tuesday, could substantiate allegations that the agency ignored information in its investigation that might have cast doubt on its findings.
According to a letter from the EPA’s inspector general, the investigation will seek to determine whether aggressive legal action taken by EPA’s Region 6 office against Range Resources "conformed to agency guidelines, regulations, and policy." An IG spokesperson said the results of the investigation will be released "in the next several months."
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.)—the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee when the investigation was initiated in July—and Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), the current ranking member, requested the investigation.
"Given all that has come to light about EPA's 'crucify them' agenda ... Congress deserves a full explanation about this particular case," Inhofe said at the time.
"Crucify them" referred to comments by then-Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz, who compared his enforcement philosophy against oil and gas companies to Roman crucifixions.
That philosophy was on full display in the agency’s actions against Range Resources, the EPA’s critics say.
"There’s been a blanket of secrecy at the EPA, but I think it’s starting to unravel," Vitter told the Free Beacon when asked about the investigation.
"The EPA’s agenda to stymie domestic energy production isn’t isolated to Region 6—it’s an epidemic, and I think this investigation may uncover further evidence of their war on traditional energy production," Vitter said.
A spokesperson for EPA's Region 6 office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Armendariz issued an emergency order against Range on Dec. 7, 2010, claiming the company had contaminated two natural gas wells with methane released from drilling activities in the Strawn shale formation near Fort Worth, Texas.
However, internal EPA emails show that even the agency’s own experts doubted the science behind the enforcement actions.
Doug Beak, an environmental chemist at the EPA’s Ground Water and Ecosystems Restoration Research division, told another EPA official nine days before the enforcement actions were made public that the "limited data set" used in EPA’s groundwater tests meant that evidence of water contamination due to Range activities was "not conclusive."
"The only way now to compare" methane in surrounding drinking water before and after Range’s drilling activities (the crucial data point), Beak said, "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."
John Blevins, Region 6’s enforcement director, said in a court-ordered deposition that EPA was aware that groundwater in the area contained methane prior to Range drilling activities there but chose not to include that information in the official record of administrative proceedings.
"We were aware of those facts," Blevins said, adding, "We don't believe they're germane or relevant to the issue at hand."
The agency moved forward with its enforcement against Range despite the holes in EPA’s data. Armendariz emailed EPA staff on Dec. 7, 2010, and at least one Texas environmental activist to tell them to "Tivo channel 8," a local station scheduled to break the news.
"Yee haw! Hats off to the new Sheriff and his deputies!" exclaimed one of the activists in an emailed reply.
"From a regional administrator’s cozy relationship with local activists to the EPA’s refusal to consider any evidence beyond a YouTube video, it’s little wonder that the inspector general is investigating this case," said a spokesperson for Energy In Depth, an online oil and gas trade group.
"I just hope we get a courtesy email before the conclusions are issued so we know which channel to Tivo," the spokesperson said.