Imagine for a moment that you’ve been tasked with conducting a scientific analysis to determine the origination point for small volumes of methane detected in two private water wells in Parker Co., Texas.
You would know the question is important, since the agency for which you work – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - has based nearly its entire case against an energy producer in North Texas on the assertion that the methane in those water wells came from natural gas wells drilled into the Barnett Shale.
In conducting this analysis, it’s likely you’d know that one of the most obvious ways to characterize the methane in the water wells is to run a profile on the percentage of nitrogen found in the samples of natural gas.
Through experience, you would know that methane in the Barnett has a relatively low percentage of nitrogen – often in the single digits.
And you would also know that a much shallower rock formation called the Strawn has a much higher percentage, generally around 20 percent.
Your task: Pin the presence of methane on Range Resources by trying to prove its wells in the Barnett represent the source of the natural gas in the water wells.
On Dec. 7, 2010, that’s precisely the argument that EPA put forth in issuing an unprecedented “emergency order” -- demanding, among other things, that Range plug up its wells and go home.
Just one problem: The isotopic analysis EPA used as the basis for its order doesn’t include a word about nitrogen; EPA never ran those tests.