Sharon Wilson is a fifth generation Texan and is considered a leading citizen expert on the impacts of shale oil and gas extraction. She works for the nonprofit advocacy organization Earthworks. Please visit her blog at http://www.texassharon.com.
Answers edited for length and clarity. Sharon spoke with Kirk Herbertson, PTP member and Senior Policy Advisor at EarthRights International.
You’re a lifelong Texan who used to work for the oil and gas industry. Now you’re one of the industry’s most outspoken critics, especially on fracking. How did you make this shift?
When I worked for the industry, I was unaware of the environmental impacts. But I was not comfortable with the ethics of some of our clients and I felt like they had a disturbing sense of entitlement. I decided I didn’t want to spend my days that way, so I quit and I moved out to the countryside. I moved to Wise County, where an oilman named George Mitchell happened to be experimenting with how to produce oil and gas from shale. I got a ringside seat to that, and my air turned brown, and my water turned black. I started questioning what I saw happening around me. I started putting it on a blog. And other people contacted me and asked me to help them. That’s how I got started in this.
You’ve been SLAPPed twice, first by oil and gas company Range Resources. What led you to speak out against Range Resources?
A man named Steve Lipsky, who lived in Parker County, had a lot of gas in his water well, which the EPA said was the result of Range Resources’ natural gas extraction nearby. I was reading about his case, and I could tell that the media was not connecting some dots that needed to be connected, so I started doing that on my blog. I actually went to the courthouse, got some depositions, attended some hearings, and started writing about it on my blog. And then I received this video of Steve Lipsky actually lighting the gas that was coming out of his water hose, so it looked like he was lighting his water on fire. I made a Youtube video out of it. Pretty soon after that, someone knocked at my door and handed me a subpoena. Which is a very unsettling thing to have happen.
What was it like to be personally targeted by this company?
Well, they’re a billion dollar company, and they have endless money to spend on a legal team. They have very deep pockets. So it was very frightening. I didn’t know to what lengths they might go.
You responded on your blog with a lot of entertaining posts that used sarcasm and humor to mock Range Resources. Why did you choose that approach when you had been threatened?
I had a wonderful attorney, Scott McLain, who has won quite a few big environmental cases in Texas against the oil and gas industry. He represented me pro bono. And he told me that Range Resources wanted to shut me up. He told me he did not want me to shut up. He said you need to be careful and always tell the truth, and don’t say anything about the judge. He gave me a couple of parameters, but he said otherwise, ridicule them all you want. I think that was a brilliant strategy, because even though I was pretty terrified, I was standing up to bullies, so it made me seem unafraid.
I knew there was no evidence to connect to me to what they said I did, what they alleged, but I didn’t know what they might manufacture. Even though I was really terrified, it was empowering to write these blog posts making fun of them. Because they deserved the ridicule.
Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and speaking out against bullies is the way to go.
The second SLAPP against you was brought by Chris Faulkner, also known as the Frack Master. Who is he, and why did you start investigating him?
Chris Faulkner was an IT guy who saw an opportunity to run a scam by starting a fracking company. He just manufactured this whole myth about who he was. He hired several publicists to help him create this picture of who Frack Master was. And he knew nothing about fracking, but he taught himself to speak the language. He kept writing letters and putting ads in the paper when we were doing the Denton fracking ban campaign. And he came to speak when the City Council was deciding whether or not to go forward with the fracking ban or to put it with the voters.
He came and spoke, and it was comical—to me he was so obviously a fraud that I went home and started googling him. You just had to go to the second page of the Google hits. The first page was all this stuff that he had planted, so when you google him, it would show up. On the second page was all this stuff about this man who was just obviously someone who ran several scams in this life.
So I dumped it all on my blog. It was nothing that I made up. It was all original documents, court cases, SEC rulings, just stuff that I turned up about him. Pretty soon, an investigative reporter contacted me. He was doing an investigation for the Texas Observer, and he found a lot of the same stuff plus more. Faulkner knew he couldn’t come after the Texas Observer because they had a team of lawyers. He had already tried to sue one news organization, and that was a huge disaster for him. So he came after me. I’m an individual. And he thought he could shut me up. It sucked up some of my time. It was another huge stress. But it didn’t turn out too well for him, and he is now in prison. I went to a hearing recently, and he was wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Did these experiences change how you think about free speech?
Yeah, you know I won both cases. It’s not against the law to ridicule people who are being ridiculous. The Frack Master case was dismissed, and he was supposed to pay me $10,000 in damages and my court fees. And just FYI, the court can award damages, but they don’t put in a mechanism so they actually have to pay you. So I’ll never get that money. But people probably don’t even know that.
I was out a lot of stress, tremendous stress when Range Resources came after me. It cost me some time. But the case elevated my status as an activist, because I spoke out and didn’t present a terrified face publicly. I became really more widely known because of that.
On the other hand, I don’t want to go through that hassle again. There are a lot of things that I want to write about and expose, but sometimes I don’t, because I don’t want to go through that hassle again. And it’s really hard to find an attorney when you don’t have a lot of money. I’m not sure that I could find an attorney again. It has prohibited my ability to expose some of the misdeeds of the oil and gas industry.
Why didn’t you give up? Was quitting ever an option?
It just made me so angry, the injustice of all of it. Both of my sons were bullied in school, we faced the bullying and called it out, so how could I not do the same? This was a case of wealthy people—well, the Frack Master didn’t have a lot of money until he defrauded his investors. Both cases were misuse of the legal system. If you have money it’s easy to do and it’s a huge problem that needs to be resolved. When Range Resources sued me, I was able to get an attorney, because I have the right connections. Somebody who doesn’t have those connections—it’s much harder for just regular people to overcome something like this.
And the industry now tries to shut people up from the beginning. They put legal clauses in their leases now, a lot of them saying that if you sign this, you can never speak out against us.
What is your advice for other activists and community leaders who want to take on this powerful industry?
Our side needs more attorneys who will help people if they get in trouble. The situation now is so desperate with climate change that we’re obligated to have a lot of courage. And I’m not a person who—I mean, some people say that I have courage—but I really don’t. I have a lot of fear, but I don’t let the fear stop me. I just face it, and go forward with what I need to do, with what is right and just. And some people may say that’s foolish, but that’s the way that I live. We need to be very courageous right now. We’re obligated for our children.
You’ve written about the “fracking mafia” and the military psy-ops tactics that Range Resources has claimed to use. Do you see a lot of intimidation tactics in fracking operations?
Yes, I have been personally threatened, I have gotten death threats, threats to harm me, I’ve been intentionally run off the road. One year, I had to buy five new tires in a year, because trucks would try to run me off the road. After you’ve driven around to their sites and documented what they’re doing, they get to know your car. I’ve been illegally detained for hours in the scorching hot Texas sun, where an operator had his employees stand in a line across a public road to keep me from passing.
I always stay on public property, or I go on private property if I have permission. But I’m pretty leery about that. I almost want the permission in writing, but I do stay on public property because of things like this. I know that the industry would love to see me locked up somewhere, probably where they give shock treatments (laughs).
I’ve been SLAPPed and need help
Jim Taylor (SLAPPed for protecting his communities’ water source)
For over 100 years, Weed residents have relied on a nearby Mount Shasta spring as their main source of drinking water. Roseburg Forest Products wants to sell it to the international bottled water industry.
Pete Kolbenschlag (SLAPPed for speaking out about oil and gas development)
In 2017, he was SLAPPed after posting an online comment in response to an article about an oil and gas company operating in the community