Evolution of a Rebel
Once she began to learn about gas drilling and its dangers, she couldn’t unlearn. When she discovered that millions of gallons of water were needed to frack each well, she realized that vast amounts of that water were winding up in waste disposal wells, permanently removed from the water supply.
“When I started talking about that, people started making fun of me,” she said. “But I kept on talking because that water was never coming back.”
She wrote to Dr. Paul Hudak, a professor and chairman of the geography department at UNT, whose book on hydrology she’d read. He told her the concerns were valid. “But he told me I should phrase it as ‘permanently removed from our active hydrologic cycles,’ ” she said. “And finding out I was right about that was an important milestone in my evolution.”
Another milestone was meeting Don Young at an energy expo at Tarrant County College hosted by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger in 2007, which Young described as an event touting the gas drilling that was beginning to happen in Fort Worth.
Young asked for a table for his organization, Fort Worth Can Do, at the expo and got one. Wilson, with whom he’d been in touch via e-mail for a couple of months, showed up. Gary Hogan, another of the early opposition voices to urban gas drilling, was there as well.
“Don had been working on his Just Say No to Urban Drilling for so long, and Gary and I and some others were working on it, but we all realized we needed help,” Wilson said. “And we thought the place we could get it was from Earthworks.”
Not long after she met Young, the owners of the other half of the mineral rights on her property — a large family, none of whom had ever lived on that land — contacted Wilson and told her they’d leased the mineral rights for exploration and hoped she wouldn’t try to stand in the way.
“I was devastated,” Wilson said. She contacted a lawyer, who told her that he could get her a “no surface use” clause in the lease — which meant the gas companies couldn’t use the surface of her land for anything but pipelines, which they could take by eminent domain. He also told her that if she didn’t sign, the companies could still drill, she couldn’t protect her surface rights, and she’d get no money.
Ironically, the driller who ended up with the lease was one she’d already written about on her blog, revealing the company’s high levels of toxic emissions and poor waste practices.
“I didn’t have the option of saying I didn’t want to do the deal, even though I’d already busted the operator, Braden Exploration, even though I’d busted them with diesel emissions just spewing everywhere and for having a waste pit next to a creek and for emptying their drilling worker’s sewage into one of their pits,” Wilson said. “It was either sign or get nothing. So I wound up signing in October 2008.”
Gas drillers made hay with that. “They were already calling me a left-wing lunatic, and now they were saying I took the money and so should just shut up.” One blog poster wondered if she was going to be attending a Communist party meeting nearby; others wondered which left-wing groups were funding her website.
Some threatened her physically; one person threatened to take out her whole family “Chicago-style.” Personal information about her and her son and where she lived got posted on Twitter. “It was scary at first,” she said. “I mean, I took it personally, and sometimes I just cried and cried about it.”
But she didn’t fold. With some of the gas royalty income, she sent Earthworks’ OGAP a large donation, then footed the bill to have OGAP come to see what was happening in Texas. She and Young showed them around.
“That was the beginning of OGAP in Texas,” said Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, Texas, the town at the epicenter of the Barnett Shale that was devastated by gas drilling operations. “If they hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have been able to get some of the problems in DISH cleaned up. And Sharon’s the one who made that happen.”
Wilson’s website began to catch fire in 2007. She was still working full time at UNT but had begun spending all of her free time blogging. She’d scour news sources for gas drilling information and sometimes post several entries a day. She often found herself falling asleep at 2 a.m. with her computer on her lap.
“It really began to take over my life — no, it was my life. People started contacting me and telling me the same things I’d written about had happened to them as well. And I would post their stories. And then people needed help, and I would try to help them. I’d tell them to start documenting things and where to go for information, how to get through the maze to get something done.”
Her evolution, she said, mirrored that of people all over the country. When shale drilling begins, residents first hear about the money they’ll make and how the wells will help make the United States energy- independent, she said. “And when we learn there are some bad actors, well, we think the Texas Railroad Commission will take care of them. But then we discover that the whole industry is not regulated and that bad actors are the norm.”
By that point, Wilson said, it is often too late to do anything to stop the drilling.
Among those who got in touch with her were Tim and Christine Ruggiero, who contacted Wilson after Aruba Petroleum began fracking on a section of their land in Decatur in September 2009. The couple couldn’t stop it because they didn’t own the mineral rights. The Ruggieros and their young daughter began suffering from rashes and respiratory problems.
According to Tillman, Wilson “told [the Ruggieros] how to collect information and then told them what to do and finally helped get them out of the situation they were in. And she does that every day.”
The Ruggieros, with Wilson’s help, got a settlement from Aruba and were able to move to Pilot Point, far from any shale drilling. The settlement came with a non-disclosure agreement, as most gas company settlements do, leaving the aggrieved parties unable to tell their story to others whom it might help.
Wilson also helped another major figure in the North Texas drilling debate to find information early on. Deborah Rogers, a former member of the advisory board of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, went to Wilson when the goats on her West Fort Worth farm began getting sick and dying, shortly after a well was fracked nearby.
“We met through this issue,” Rogers said. “I think she’s one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met, and I don’t say that lightly. And her impact has been huge. I travel all over the country and all I have to do is say ‘Texas Sharon,’ and everyone knows who I’m talking about.” Rogers is now a member of the advisory committee to the U.S. Department of the Interior tasked with bringing transparency to the finances of oil and gas drilling.
But so many people began telling Wilson their stories and asking her for help that she got overwhelmed. Instead of throwing up her hands, however, in early 2009 she started the National Alliance for Drilling Reform in an effort to get more blogs about gas drilling started around the country.
“When the Marcellus Shale started in Pennsylvania, there were very few blogs where people could [post] about it, so they kept coming to me. I finally told them they had to start their own blogs.
“The Alliance included people from maybe 15 or 20 places around the country where drilling was going on. And I often took them step-by-step on how to set up the blog, and those people started blogging about their own areas,” she recalled. “I think it helps to have a lot of local blogs putting out information, because that way people can find out what’s happening in their own area.”
In March 2010, Earthworks asked Wilson if she’d go to work for OGAP, for 10 hours a week. “I was still working at UNT full time, finishing my third year without heat or air conditioning in Wise — at first I couldn’t afford to do anything about it, and then I didn’t want to invest anything because I was trying sell the property — and doing about 40 hours for OGAP. The difference was that at least I was getting paid for some of that time.”
Shortly after getting the part-time work with OGAP, Wilson and Adam moved into an apartment in Denton. Later that year, as the OGAP representative from Texas, Wilson went to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Triangle Research Park facility in North Carolina to present case studies on the impacts of gas well drilling she’d collected. Those studies were later published by Earthworks in a report called “Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety.”
In early 2011, Earthworks offered Wilson a full-time job, and she left UNT in late April that year. At about the same time she finally sold her Wise County land. “It was like a dream. I mean, I’d been doing the blog and trying to help people for years for free, and then I was paid a little, and suddenly I was being paid to do the work well enough to live on. That was fantastic,” she said.
Later that year she attended a gas industry meeting that shook her deeply. It was a session advertised as offering a new way forward for public relations efforts for the gas industry.
The meeting was billed innocuously as “Media and Stakeholder Relations Hydraulic Fracturing Relations Initiative 2011.” She was nervous, thinking she’d be thrown out as soon as someone recognized her from her nametag. But she went, and what she heard terrified her.
“The very first speaker, Michael Kehs” — Chesapeake Energy’s vice-president for strategic affairs and public relations — “referred to the American people who opposed gas drilling as ‘insurgents.’ All I could think of was, ‘Wow! That’s how they think of us!’ And then he suggested that the gas companies should download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual to get a grip on how to handle gas company opposition. It was just creepy! I started to sweat and got an overpowering urge to get up and leave and not come back.”
The next speaker, she said, talked about using U.S. military psychological warfare tactics to discredit drilling opponents and to encourage people to lease their mineral rights.
“That might be business as usual for huge companies, but it was frightening to think about it,” Wilson said. “At the same time, it made sense. Everything they do and have been doing — dividing communities, pitting neighbors against neighbors, tracking the opposition, keeping databases on gas drilling opponents — all of that was in that meeting. That’s what we’re up against.”
In August 2011, Wilson bought a home in Allen. It’s a pretty red brick house in an established development that she finds a bit overwhelming, what with the home owners association telling her what plants she can have in the front yard and how short the grass has to be.
In person she’s vivacious. She’s tall and strong and has a good sense of humor. Though she doesn’t live out in the country anymore, she’s brought a lot of the country with her: She collects rainwater to water her plants, heats her home with a small wood-burning stove, and has a solar-powered oven. “I’m not off the grid,” she said, “but I’m working on it.” She’s proud of the eight large solar panels on the backside of her roof.
She has a home office but rarely uses it, preferring an overstuffed leather chair with her laptop on a small table in front of it. On the living room floor is a cowhide rug.
Wilson talked about a Parker County case involving Range Resources and poisoned well water.
“The story on the Energy in Depth blog — an industry blog — is that I orchestrated people in Parker County to claim that Range Resources had poisoned their wells. Which is not what happened,” she said. “What happened was that a family in Parker County discovered their wells were contaminated in an area where Range was drilling. And they called the Railroad Commission, which didn’t take any action, and then they called the EPA.
“Well, the EPA came out and did some investigating but finally dropped the case, though they made it clear they were not dropping it because of the science of the case. And no one ever knew why the case was dropped.”
Until recently, that is, when an Associated Press story revealed that a politician had gone to the EPA to lobby for Range and promised that if the EPA would drop the Parker County case, Range Resources would participate in a hydraulic fracturing study being done by the EPA.
“Somewhere along the line, Range threatened to sue me, though they never did,” Wilson said. “They did harass me and claimed I’d arranged the whole thing to make them look bad. But I didn’t have anything to do with that case. I wrote about it on my blog and put up a video that someone sent, but I do that all the time. The family involved never even came to me for help. I still wound up in a court proceeding with five of their lawyers. And you wouldn’t believe it, but Range had made a PowerPoint presentation of the work I’d done, entries from my blog, just trying to make me look bad. It was pretty bizarre.”
The PowerPoint presentation, delivered in court, included the cover photo Fort Worth Weekly reporter Jeff Prince took of Wilson a few years ago. Prince had Wilson copy the famous World War ll pose of Rosie the Riveter.
“When that went up [on the screen], one Range attorney said something to the effect that ‘There she is, Judge, in a combative pose with an up-yours fist.’ ”
The judge, she said, paused and then noted that it looked like the World War ll poster of the iconic female defense worker. “At that point I realized that Range had nothing on me — I mean, if that was the best they had, they had nothing.”
Of course, there was a lot of nothing: Nearly her entire blog was printed out, filling a file box about a foot deep. The company had “binders full of my blog posts,” she said.
On Wilson’s side was a lawyer from McAllen who’d taken her case pro bono.
Nothing came of the case, and Wilson doesn’t think anything will.
“Range Resources went after Wilson and brutally attacked her just for putting information up on her blog,” Rogers said. “The tenor of the attacks was so disproportionate that it’s a good indication that she’s clearly having an impact on the industry.”
Which doesn’t keep Energy in Depth from recycling the allegation that Wilson arranged the Parker County case. Neither Energy in Depth nor Range Resources would comment on the case to the Weekly.
Wilson said she still receives vague threats that she takes as attempts to intimidate her and keep her from lambasting the gas drilling industry. She used to be frightened by such threats; these days she finds them hilarious.
“What I find rewarding about my job is that I’ve realized that opposition to gas drilling is in direct proportion to the amount of drilling that goes on,” she said. “People learn how bad it is pretty quickly.”
She said that a reporter doing a story on her some time ago went to Energy in Depth for a comment and was told that “If you’re judging the success of someone like me by the number of hits my website gets, well, then I’m a success. But if you’re judging my success by how I’ve stopped their drilling, well, the score isn’t so high.
“But you know what? The truth is that there are a lot of places, a lot of counties, cities, states — and I’ve got 19 pages worth of their names — that have placed a moratorium on fracking. And that sounds like a pretty good success to me.”
And if she ruled the world?
“I would stop permitting any more wells until and unless they can figure out how to do them without hurting people and the environment. And if they can’t do that, then they should just be shut down.”