The hiring of former Chesapeake Energy Corp. spokeswoman Julie H. Wilson to lead a health initiative in Fort Worth has many local people astounded and confused –– but certainly not tongue-tied. Wilson’s critics don’t mince words when describing their disdain for the woman who became the face of urban drilling in North Texas for the past seven years.
“Julie Wilson is the sorriest excuse for a human being I’ve ever met,” said Deborah Rogers, a former goat farmer and artisan cheesemaker who clashed with gas drillers in 2009 and later founded the nonprofit Energy Policy Forum, a consulting firm for those battling the industry. “She was a mediocrity who was put in a position of power, and she abused that position egregiously.”
Nashville-based Healthways hired Wilson last week to lead a well-being plan known as the Blue Zones Project. The idea is to encourage people to eat more nutritious foods and exercise more and to live longer and better. Healthways is partnered with Texas Health Resources, a system with 25 hospitals under its umbrella in North Texas, including Harris Methodist and Arlington Memorial. Wilson is coordinating a team of local volunteers, school officials, employers, and healthcare providers to create fitness initiatives and encourage policy changes that lead to a healthier city.
The irony of Wilson’s hiring isn’t lost on Rogers and many other residents and environmental activists. They view Wilson as a marketing mouthpiece for a company that came to town promising gas royalty riches but also brought along air and water pollution, eminent domain abuses, and a bullying mentality that attempted to silence naysayers. Chesapeake was the primary hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, driller in the early days of the Barnett Shale, and Wilson was a top executive. Prior to that, she owned a public relations company.
Chesapeake officials led by Wilson spent years downplaying or denying any connection between gas drilling and pollution, even as the energy industry resisted revealing the ingredients in its fracking fluids. Federal law since 2005 has provided the so-called “Halliburton loophole” that exempts gas drillers from many key requirements of the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Residents who lived near drilling rigs and, especially, compressor station sites began complaining of lights, noise, and truck traffic and, later, illnesses such as asthma and nosebleeds. Various studies have linked the drilling industry to methane emissions that contribute to smog, particularly in the Barnett Shale, where urban gas drilling was first introuced on a large scale. A Houston research consortium determined in 2012 that Barnett Shale gas production had pushed smog levels significantly higher in the Metroplex and farther downwind. The study also said the subsequent impact on the ozone will most likely prevent the area from meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standard.
When drillers began eyeing urban areas around Tarrant County, Wilson hosted public meetings in more than 50 cities from the mid-2000s to last year. She painted a generally rosy picture of urban drilling and spent years shooting down allegations about sickening vapors from drill sites and compressor stations. As vice president of urban development in the Barnett Shale from 2006 to 2013, she downplayed the felling of trees to make way for pad sites, and discredited notions that drilling processes could taint groundwater.
In 2012 Arlington residents complained of flowback vapors escaping a Chesapeake gas drilling operation. Wilson characterized the vapors as steam and dismissed stories that harmful emissions were drifting toward neighboring homes and making people ill. Arlington residents asked Chesapeake to show them independent test results on what was in the emissions but got no response. The EPA has released test results that show gas field emissions often contain a combination of water, sand, chemicals, and volatile organic compounds.
The Healthways position filled by Wilson involves “engaging local governments in policy changes and working closely with neighborhoods, school districts, employers, restaurants, grocery stores, and healthcare providers, among others,” according to Wilson’s LinkedIn page. The job isn’t vastly different from what she did with Chesapeake for seven years.
“She knows how to manipulate a community, that’s for damn sure,” said Sharon Wilson (no relation), an organizer with Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that strives to protect communities and the environment from irresponsible energy development. “It makes one wonder about how committed this Blue Zones is if they would hire somebody like her who has shown she has absolutely no regard for health.”
Texas Health Resources contributed $500,000 toward the Blue Zones initiative but had little to say about Wilson’s hiring.
“Texas Health Resources doesn’t make judgments about the employees of our strategic partners,” public relations director Wendell Watson said. “The project is in no way dependent on one person. This is a community initiative and a collaborative effort.”
Healthways officials, including Wilson, did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Rogers recalls vividly her battles with Wilson over drilling. In fact, Rogers changed her career in large part because of those clashes. She was a financial analyst who stepped away from the white-collar world in 2003 to operate Deborah’s Farmstead, a goat farm in Westworth Village just outside Fort Worth. Some of her 120 goats died or became ill after Chesapeake began drilling operations near her farm in 2009. She expressed concerns at public meetings hosted by Wilson, who retaliated by trying to get her business closed, Rogers said.
“She wrote a letter and sent it to the mayor of Westworth Village and said my cheese was contaminated,” Rogers said. “I asked her to corroborate those claims, and she refused to answer.”
After weeks of e-mails, Rogers said Wilson eventually produced the results of testing that had been done on her cheese.
“They were completely clean,” Rogers said. “She had lied to try to coerce me into silence and submission about speaking out on drilling issues, and she tried to destroy my business in the process.”
The ordeal pushed Rogers more deeply into activism, and eventually she founded the Energy Policy Forum to address fracking issues. She now travels the world discussing energy policies, gas drilling, and shale gas economics.
“I’d still be a goat farmer in Fort Worth if it weren’t for Julie Wilson,” she said. “Julie was arrogant and heavy-handed.”
Gary Hogan is president of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance (NCTCA), which works for solutions to problems associated with gas drilling and pipelines. He said Wilson’s hiring is an insult to Fort Worth residents and described Healthways and Texas Health Resources as “clueless” for allowing her to lead a health project. He recently sent a mass e-mail encouraging people to complain.
“Those organizations are going to have their e-mail boxes lit up by a bunch of citizens who don’t appreciate Julie Wilson being appointed,” he said.