WEATHERFORD, Texas — Steve Lipsky, an entrepreneur and businessman, lives to the west of Fort Worth in a sprawling Mediterranean-style dream house. Since he found methane contaminating his water well, he has waged a legal battle against the gas company Range Resources.
In 2009, Range drilled and fracked two gas wells approximately 2,000 feet from Lipsky’s home. Later that year, Lipsky says he started noticing that the water from his well was slimy and fizzy. The next year he began trucking in his family’s water for about $1,000 a month. The methane levels in his well have risen to concentrations nearly three times higher than what’s considered explosive, according to recent test Lipsky helped pay for.
In December 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency administrative order requiring Range to fix the situation. The next day, the Railroad Commission of Texas, a state agency that regulates the oil-and-gas industry, said it would hold a hearing on wells in the area.
According to Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group, gas companies in Texas are “very highly regulated.” But fracking opponents say the Railroad Commission acts as the industry’s handmaiden.
Last month, Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman lost in the Republican primary for Texas attorney general; his campaign website says he “repeatedly stood up to President Barack Obama and his job-killing policies, suing Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency seven times.”
In fiscal 2012, the Railroad Commission “performed more than 118,000 oil-and-natural-gas-facility inspections, identified about 55,000 violations … and assessed $1.9 million in penalties,” according to the Sunset Commission, a legislative commission that evaluates Texas state agencies. Its report says the Railroad Commission pursued more than 250 “formal enforcement actions,” suggesting that the average penalty per enforcement action was about $7,600, while most identified violation resulted in no fine.
In Lipsky’s case, the commission ruled in favor of Range. It determined, as a witness called by Range had argued, that the methane came not from the Barnett Shale, which Range had drilled, but the Strawn, a shallower rock formation that’s closer to Lipsky’s water supply. (Range did not respond to requests for comment.)
Despite the Railroad Commission’s decision, Lipsky sued Range. The company then countersued for defamation. Range argued that a video Lipsky distributed, in which he appears to light his well water on fire, maligns the company’s reputation for environmental stewardship.
In its complaint, Range says Lipsky closed a vent on the well so that gas would accumulate and he could ignite it. The company sees this as part of a bid by Lipsky to lower his property taxes. “Why would we do that?” says Lipsky. “Our taxes are still higher than our house is worth, because no one will purchase a house without potable water.”
Before all this started, I was a Republican who believed in the American dream.
Texas State Judge Trey Loftin threw out Lipsky’s case in January 2012. Later that year, Loftin unsuccessfully campaigned for re-election to his judgeship on a platform of getting tough with the EPA. He touted his role in Lipsky’s case.
That same year, Al Armendariz, the EPA official who issued the order against Range, resigned after a video surfaced of him citing the conquering armies of ancient Rome as role models for environmental enforcement. “They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them. And then that town was real easy to manage.”
Now Lipsky is worried that the Range suit, which is still pending, is going to make an example of him. “They’re going to have unlimited resources, and by the time they get out of that jury [room] 12 people are going to say, ‘I just found out the moon’s made of cheese,” he says.
There’s another twist. Geoffrey Thyne, a geological consultant who formerly taught at the Colorado School of Mines and has followed the case, has come to believe that the rising methane levels in Lipsky’s well and several nearby wells may be due to Barnett methane leaking from Range wells and moving upward along an underground fault that could be a “conduit” to the water supply. Last year, the Railroad Commission opened a new investigation into wells in the area.
Does Lipsky consider himself an activist?
“I’m from Wisconsin, so I believe in clean water and clean this and that,” he says. But that’s not the same as being an environmentalist, Lipsky says. “Why would I build a house like this? Why would I have eight gas fireplaces, a gas stove? … Before all this started, I was a Republican who believed in the American dream.”
Lipsky’s wife, Shyla, says she doesn’t expect people to change their minds anytime soon. “People I know in the industry, they grew up in it,” she says. “It’s the way they feed their families, it’s their income, and they are hardworking, good people.”
“They’re being poisoned while they’re working, even though it’s also their source of income. I feel for them,” she says.
“I would hope that they care that they’re contaminating water,” she says. But “people tend to worry about their own backyard and not somebody else’s.”