Firm accused of bullying fracking foes

Posted: February 22, 2013

When a Texas landowner took his fear that a gas driller had poisoned his well to federal regulators, the company, Range Resources Corp., turned around and sued him for conspiring "to harm Range."

Critics say the Fort Worth-based company, which pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, has taken a hard line with residents, local officials, and activists. In Pennsylvania it stopped participating in town hearings to review its own applications to drill because local officials were asking too many questions and taking too long.

The company counters that it enjoys a fine working relationship with lease holders, residents and officials in the overwhelming majority of the 250 municipalities where it operates, but faces determined opponents in a few.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, sand, and chemicals are shot underground to break apart rock and free trapped natural gas, has brought a boom in energy production to Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado, and lowered natural gas costs. That has lured chemical and other manufacturers to invest in the United States.

It has also brought complaints from some nearby landowners and farmers, who say leaks from holding ponds, spills and underground ruptures have led to contamination of their water.

Range says it has moved to deal with the concerns. It was the first company to disclose fracturing fluids for each well, pioneered water recycling, and helped pass stronger rules for cementing and casing of wells, company spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. It also is a large supporter of agricultural youth scholarships, the United Way and other area charitable causes, he said.

Range filed two applications to drill in Robinson Township, near Pittsburgh, last year. As the town moved to review those bids, Range said it faced a series of hurdles to get clearance to drill, and it filed a letter with the town saying the delay "violates Range's due-process rights."

Range's lawyer declined to answer questions at a township hearing in December to discuss its own application. Robinson was unfairly dragging out the process and should just approve its application, the company said in documents filed with the township. Pitzarella blamed the delays on the township attorney, who has a private practice taking on drillers, including Range.

Robinson, which already has cleared other Range wells, was just doing its job, Town Supervisor Brian Coppola said. After Range refused to answer the board's follow-up questions, it voted down the company's applications on Feb. 11.

Even before that decision, Range sued the town, arguing that the town had unfairly delayed approval.

In nearby Cecil Township, friction between the town and company got so bad that the two sides had a public meeting in December aimed at resolving their differences.

Despite the meeting, Range sent the board a legal notice in January that it might face another lawsuit from the company soon.

Last year it countersued a Texas landowner, Steven Lipsky, who said Range's drilling practices contaminated his water well with explosive methane.

While the case is still being fought in court, Lipsky stands by his allegation of Range's culpability: "It's ludicrous," he said, referring to the case. "They're ruthless."

Separately, Range's lawyer issued a cease-and-desist letter to anti-fracking blogger Sharon Wilson, who first published a video of Lipsky holding a hose hooked up to his water well, which had so much methane in it that he could light it on fire.

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