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Pa. agency orders Range Resources to plug troubled Marcellus well

Frustrated Pennsylvania environmental regulators ordered Appalachian shale gas driller Range Resources Corp. to plug a Lycoming County, Pa., well that they say is leaking methane into nearby private water wells or face further regulatory action.

The Jan. 13 letter to Range from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, is the latest salvo in a seven-year battle over the Harman Lewis 1H well in Moreland Township. The agency has said for years that the well is leaking methane into nearby water wells and at one point slapped an $8.9 million fine on Range for the faulty well only to withdraw the penalty when Range dropped its appeal of the issue to the state's Environmental Hearing Board.

The $8.9 million fine would have been the largest ever levied on an exploration and production company in Pennsylvania history.

"We strongly disagree with the DEP's order issued today that the Harman Lewis well impacted local water supplies," Range said in a statement late Jan. 13. "We have worked tirelessly to fully cooperate with both regulators and nearby residents for years despite extensive third-party studies and analysis that determined the methane in the groundwater is naturally-occurring."

Range has said throughout the process that the methane being detected in local wells is shallow gas endemic to the area. The company claims the isotopic signatures of the gas match that of methane found in predrilling tests and do not match production gas from the Harman Lewis well.

"We have attempted to resolve this in good faith but after numerous attempts, the operator still has not completely addressed these violations," DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement. "Range Resources' refusal at times to accept responsibility and finally address this problem is unacceptable and that is why DEP is issuing this order."

Under the order, Range has 60 days to conclude an investigation into the methane leakage and report on its efforts to resolve the issue as well as develop a plan to plug the well. After DEP approves the remedial plan, Range has 120 days to submit a plan to completely plug the well and an adjacent bore hole dug by accident in an earlier effort to solve the problem.

Range had no immediate comment.

According to the DEP's well data base, the Harman Lewis 1H was spud in February 2011 and has never reported any production of natural gas to the market.