On Friday, March 30, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced that the agency was withdrawing its December 7, 2010 Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Administrative Order (“AO ”) issued unilaterally to Range Resources Corporation and Range Resources Production Company (“Range”). With much fanfare and national media attention, EPA issued the AO to address the contamination of two water wells in North Central Texas. EPA alleged that the source of the contamination was from Range’s oil and gas activities, including hydraulic fracturing, in the Barnett Shale Formation. Range has challenged EPA’s action with pending litigation in the Northern District of Texas and in the Fifth Circuit. Was EPA’s decision to withdraw its AO an outgrowth of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA?
In addition to ordering replacement water supplies to the recipients of water from the affected water well, the AO included the requirements that Range study a twenty-county aquifer, identify gas flow pathways anywhere within that aquifer regardless of their source, and prepare a plan to eliminate those flows and remediate any area of the aquifer that has been impacted by gas from any source. Range was to identify and sample all private water wells within 3,000 feet of their two suspect gas wells, as well as all the water wells serving a subdivision in Parker County. Range informed EPA that it disputed the validity of the AO and would not comply with some of its terms.
In addition to Range’s challenge to the AO, the Railroad Commission Texas, the state agency with sole jurisdiction and responsibility for the control and disposition of waste and the abatement and prevention of pollution of surface and subsurface water resulting from oil and gas activities, called a hearing to consider whether Range’s operations caused or contributed to the contamination of the water wells in question. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, conducted on January 19-20, 2011, the Railroad Commission found that the contamination of the water wells came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface. Geochemical gas testing demonstrated that the natural gas seeping into the water wells did not match the gas produced by Range from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5.000 feet below the surface in that area of Parker County. The evidence showed that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area could not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and the shallow aquifers from which water wells in the area produce. EPA chose not to participate in the state hearing process.
EPA brought a civil enforcement action in the Northern District of Texas against Range on January 18, 2011, Case No. 3:11-cv-00116-F, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties for Range’s failure to comply with the AO. Range filed a petition for review on the AO with the 5th Circuit on January 20, 2011, Case No. 11-60040, challenging the AO and the constitutionality of the AO statutory scheme as interpreted and applied by EPA.
The district court in its Order Denying Without Prejudice Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and Staying Case, 2011 WL 2469731 (N.D.Tex.), struggled with EPA’s claim that it only has to prove noncompliance with the AO and the Court has no jurisdiction to review the factual and legal basis of the AO. The Court found that the AO was a final agency action, but stayed the case pending the 5th Circuit decision.
The issues before the 5th Circuit included whether the AO was final agency action and, if so, has Range been provided due process. Oral argument was considered on October 3, 2011.
On March 21, 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court held in the Sackett case that AOs issued under the Clean Water Act constitute final agency action. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, Respondents, like Chantell and Michael Sackett, are afforded pre-enforcement review of the factual and legal basis of the AO and may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge the AO.
Given the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in the Sackett case, EPA must have felt less than enthusiastic about its prospects in the pending Range cases. On Friday afternoon, March 30 with no fanfare and limited media attention, EPA announced the withdrawal of the Range AO. In a letter to EPA on the same date, Range confirmed the withdrawal of the AO and a related joint stipulation to dismiss EPA’s enforcement action and committed to sample twenty private water wells located in southern Parker County on a quarterly basis for one year, a substantial reduction in the scope and magnitude of the terms in the AO.
EPA’s hasty dismissal of the Range case raises some interesting questions. Did EPA agree to withdraw the Range AO in order to minimize the litigation risk of establishing pre-enforcement review rights of respondents to unilateral AOs under the Safe Drinking Water Act? How extensive will the Sackett case be applied to unilateral AOs authorized under other non-Clean Water Act statutes administered by EPA and other federal agencies? What are the implications to EPA’s ability to react quickly to bonified public health emergencies? Will Congress need to overhaul statutory AO provisions to avoid the problem confronted in Sackett?