EARTHWORKS

Former Small-Town Mayor Slams ‘Aggressive’ Tactics of Big Shale Gas Producer

Press Action

March 18, 2012
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Among U.S. shale gas producers, Range Resources Corp. has been the most aggressive in going after residents and activists who complain about the industry’s actions, according to Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of DISH, Texas, and an outspoken critic of the natural gas industry.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. and other leading U.S. gas producers often rely on industry organizations, such as Energy In Depth, to keep tabs on activists. So far, these companies have avoided using the legal system to try to silence their critics, Tillman said. Range Resources, on the other hand, has filed lawsuits and requested subpoenas against its critics. “No one has been as out-front and aggressive as Range,” he told Press Action.

A couple years ago, while still mayor of DISH, Tillman was served with subpoenas from Range Resources. At the time, Tillman opted to stay quiet about the company’s tactics. But when Range Resources recently went after Sharon Wilson, a popular blogger who writes about natural gas issues and works as an organizer for Earthworks’ Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, Tillman decided enough is enough. He is now actively challenging Range Resources’ actions against its critics and doing what he can to support Wilson.

As part of a counter-lawsuit against homeowners in Parker County, Texas, who had accused the company of contaminating their water well, Range Resources successfully petitioned a Texas district court to issue a subpoena to Wilson. According to Tillman, Range Resources has gone too far in seeking to bring Wilson into the case. He pointed to a section of the Texas disciplinary rules of professional conduct that outlines how attorneys should “respect the rights” of third parties.

In representing a client, a lawyer “shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person,” the rule states.

“You cannot put an undue burden on a third party without cause,” Tillman said, referring to Range Resources’ subpoena of Wilson. “And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

On her blog, Wilson has written about the legal proceedings in Parker County. But she’s had no direct involvement in the case. Wilson did have direct involvement, though, in another controversy involving Range Resources. She was the person who let the world know that natural gas companies, including Range Resources, are using psychological operations, or psy-ops, against anti-shale gas drilling activists.

Wilson’s employer, Earthworks, paid for her to attend an industry conference in Houston last fall where she recorded a presentation by Matt Pitzarella, Range Resources’ director of corporate communications and public affairs. Pitzarella told the audience that his company has hired several former U.S. military psy-ops experts who are applying their skills in Pennsylvania. After the conference, Wilson shared her recordings with news organizations. She also blogged about what she had learned at the conference, letting her readers know that gas companies are using military-style psy-ops in communities where they are facing resistance.

Wilson’s reporting from the conference almost certainly put her on Range Resources’ radar, if she wasn’t already. The revelation that Range Resources employed psy-ops tactics in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania was seen as an embarrassment to the company and a public relations fiasco for the industry as a whole.

“This is clearly designed to shut her up,” Tillman said of the subpoena. “But also this is a shot across the bow at bloggers. ‘If you want to write about me, we’ll come after you.’ If Sharon can’t get on her blog site and write honest opinions about what she sees, information she gets, what she hears, what is different about what she’s doing than what people can’t do in China or Russia?”

In the subpoena, not only was Wilson ordered to be deposed by Range Resources’ lawyers, she was told to provide all communications she has had about the water contamination case with a long list of people, including the homeowners in Parker County, Steven and Shyla Lipsky. The other names on the list are a who’s who of industry critics and environmental activists: Josh Fox, who made the popular documentary Gasland; chemist and environmental activist Wilma Subra; Ramón Alvarez, a senior scientist in the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund; Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians; Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office; Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk; Kelly Haragan, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin; and several others.

“She does four or five postings [about the Lipsky case], and all of sudden she gets a subpoena,” Tillman said. “This is obviously an intimidation tactic. I’m not going to take it anymore. So I’m going to defend Sharon.”

‘The Industry Just Absolutely Hates Me’

Calvin Tillman rose to prominence as mayor of DISH, a small town in Denton County, Texas, when he oversaw the commissioning of an air quality study in 2009 that assessed compressors, condensate tanks, and major pipelines that process and transport natural gas extracted from the Barnett Shale play in Texas. The study found seven locations in the town where carcinogenic and neurotoxic emissions violated limits set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“In the state of Texas, before we did our [air quality] study in DISH, there was nothing being done. There were no air studies being done,” Tillman said. “After we did our air study, the TCEQ got involved, the EPA got involved. There were actually laws changed because of our air study. The industry just absolutely hates me for that.”

As a result of his battle for tougher regulations for the gas industry in Texas, Tillman’s profile increased across the U.S. Over the past two years, Tillman has given numerous speeches to residents in some of the nation’s communities hardest hit by the “shale gas revolution.”

Tillman’s term as mayor of DISH ended in May 2011. He and his family moved away from DISH to a nearby community, although Tillman said he keeps close ties with the town. “Since moving from DISH, my children have not experienced the periodic nosebleeds that they had while living there, and we have been able to enjoy being outside at our home without the noxious odors,” Tillman wrote on his blog.

While still mayor of DISH, in the fall of 2010, Tillman co-founded ShaleTest.org, a nonprofit organization that collects environmental data and provides environmental testing to lower income families and neighborhoods affected by natural gas exploration. “We are a functioning organization at this point,” he said.

In 2010, prior to the Lipsky case, when Tillman was subpoenaed by Range Resources as part of a separate legal proceeding, his lawyers were able to get the subpoena quashed by the court. But then Range Resources came back and filed an information request for all of the same documents in his role as mayor of DISH. “I’m a government official,” he said. “I gave them everything they asked for.” But “it really seemed like an intimidation tactic,” he added.

This was Tillman’s first encounter with Range Resources. His second occurred at the Annual Conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in April 2011, when he sat on the same panel as David Poole, senior vice president and general counsel of Range Resources. The panel was titled “What Cost Gas Drilling?”

“He spent the entire time attacking me feverishly over every single thing he could read about me,” Tillman said of Poole. “There are some industry groups that have gone after me. He’s reading that stuff. He’s just trying to discredit me.”

A couple months later, the Lipsky case started making headlines. In their lawsuit, filed in June 2011, the Lipskys claimed that Range Resources was responsible for the contamination of their well water at their home in Parker County. In July 2011, Range Resources filed a counterclaim against the Lipskys—“basically a SLAPP suit for millions of dollars,” Tillman said—alleging that the Lipskys and their environmental consultant conspired to mislead the public and defame the company.

Prior to the Lipsky lawsuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late 2010 issued a finding that Range Resources’ drilling in the Barnett Shale “caused or contributed” to the presence of methane in two drinking water wells in Parker County, one of which was the Lipsky’s. But the Texas Railroad Commission ruled in March 2011 that Range Resources was not at fault for the contamination of the water wells, contradicting the EPA’s findings.

This past January, State District Judge Trey Loftin issued an order that the district court could not hear the Lipsky’s $6.5 million lawsuit against Range Resources because it should have been filed in Austin, the state capital, as it involves a Texas Railroad Commission matter. And then on Feb. 16, Loftin issued an order denying a motion by Lipsky and their environmental consultant, Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental, to dismiss Range Resources’ multimillion-dollar counterclaim against them.

Taking a Stand against ‘Intimidation’

Less than a week later, on Feb. 22, Wilson was served the subpoena from Range Resources. The subpoena was submitted by David Poole of Range Resources, Mac Smith of the law firm Vick, Carney & Smith LLP in Weatherford, Texas, and Andrew Sims, Russell Barton and Troy Okruhlik of the law firm Harris, Finley & Bogle PC in Fort Worth.

On March 12, Wilson’s attorney filed a motion to quash the subpoena. In the motion, Wilson’s attorney states that she is not a party to the Lipsky case but that she does maintain a blog, TexasSharon.com, in which she discusses issues pertaining to oil and gas programs. Range Resources wants to depose Wilson “even though any knowledge she has of the matters at issue in this case is secondhand and peripheral,” her attorney argued. “Moreover, Range also has served on Wilson requests for production of documents. The requests for production suggest that Range’s true intent is to silence a critic rather than discover evidence relevant to the case,” the attorney asserted.

After learning about the subpoena, Tillman on March 3 sent out an email, urging people “to make a stand against this clear attempt at intimidation and help her avoid a deposition, which will amount to nothing more than a witch hunt.” Tillman suggested that people call Poole and Range Resources’ attorneys at Harris, Finley and Bogle and tell them to “leave Texas Sharon alone.”

On March 5, Poole sent Tillman a letter, saying that his March 3 email “was brought to my attention.” Poole noted that Range Resources has filed a counterclaim against the Lipskys and “is seeking discovery in order to prepare for trial of its counterclaim.”

“Among other things, Ms. Wilson (who you refer to as Texas Sharon) was the recipient of and responded to an email from a high level EPA official regarding the EPA order that is the direct result of the actions Range’s claims are based on; we believe she has a relationship with the ‘expert’ who provided misleading information and we believe she has had communications with the homeowner that are relevant to the issues in the lawsuit,” Poole said in his letter to Tillman. “That is the reason for Range issuing the subpoena for her deposition.”

Later in the letter, Poole said Range Resources “respects the rights of those with an interest in our industry, including yours and Ms. Wilson’s, to comment and provide opinions and views about it.”

“We do, however, expect that dialog to be fact based and to accurately reflect Range, our company’s actions and its intentions,” Poole said. “Unfortunately, your comments about this matter have not been factually accurate. Range simply seeks relevant discovery from people who have relevant information. After all, a deposition is merely an opportunity to provide truthful testimony under oath. Range is not seeking anything other than information from Ms. Wilson and Range does not seek a deposition based on Ms. Wilson’s writing on her blog.”

In his March 3 email, Tillman argued that Range Resources’ “intimidation tactics” are nothing new. “Range Resources (RRC) has tried to do the same kind of thing with me, but I manage to avoid a deposition,” he wrote.

Poole, in his March 5 letter, said this passage from Tillman’s March 3 email “is not based on any facts that I am aware of” and that if Tillman has “evidence or documentation of this occurring, please send it to my attention.”

On his blog, Tillman provided a link to an Oct. 8, 2010, subpoena from Range Resources. The subpoena states that it is “respectfully submitted” by Andrew Sims and Troy Okruhlik, two of Range Resources’ outside attorneys, and David Poole, senior vice president and general counsel of Range Resources. “His name is on the subpoena that was given to me,” Tillman said. “He’s the one who subpoenaed me. And he is saying he didn’t know anything about that.”

“I am certain that they [Poole’s fellow executives at Range Resources] cannot be happy with the letter that he wrote to me,” Tillman said. “If they are okay with it now, at some point they are not going to be okay with it. That exposed them. I sent him back an email that showed all of the depositions and the subpoenas that they tried with me.”

Tillman noted that, during the past few months, Range Resources has been rumored as a takeover target. BP Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc have been mentioned as possible suitors.

“The rationale for any M&A candidate is, do you have access to top quality resource plays and do you have size in those plays?” Andrew Coleman, an analyst at Raymond James, recently told Bloomberg News. “Range definitely checks both of those boxes. It’s a relatively expensive stock with a well-defined track record of growth and a very large acreage position in the Marcellus.”

But Tillman believes the Lipsky legal proceedings and Range Resources’ aggressive legal tactics may be scaring away potential suitors. If the company does get bought out, it will probably be for “certainly less than what they would have” received prior to the Lipsky case, he said.

Tagged with: texas ogap, range resources, psyops, fracking, dish, barnett shale