Shale Gas Watchdog: Sharon Wilson Fills Void Left by Industry Lapdogs
Our Texas Sharon is standing up for Texans' rights.
March 6, 2012
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“When oil and gas producers confined themselves to fracking in the wide-open spaces of Texas and Oklahoma, nobody much gave a damn.” -Jeff Goodell, “The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom”
Not everyone in Texas kowtows to the natural gas industry. Texas may have the reputation of being a state where the industry always gets what it wants, especially at the legislative and regulatory levels. But at the grassroots, where activist Sharon Wilson is fighting to raise awareness about the dangers of natural gas drilling, more and more Texans are getting to know the ugly truth about the industry.
Wilson, organizer for Earthworks’ Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, believes the best opportunities for making a difference are found at the local level. She gives talks to community groups, big and small, in gas producing regions up and down the state.
Getting local groups to speak in one voice against gas drilling is sometimes easier said than done. Recently, in Fort Worth, a group was fighting to keep salt water injection disposal wells out of the city limits. “That is kind of just kicking the can out into another community that is less fortunate,” Wilson said in a recent conversation with Press Action. “What works best most of the time is to have small community groups that band together.”
Aside from explaining the negative health impacts associated with gas drilling in the Barnett Shale in North Texas or the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, Wilson seeks to empower community groups by suggesting tools for defending themselves. For example, she recommends that groups and individuals operate a website or blog that they update regularly, providing the latest information on the effects of the gas industry’s activities in their communities.
By maintaining blogs that focus on the activities of gas operators at the community level, people who search online “will get an answer that is very local and that really helps a lot, especially in Texas because Texans don’t like anybody else telling them what to do,” Wilson said.
For example, one neighbor will say, “There was a horrible toxic chemical release last night. Two of my children woke up with bloody noses. I have a rash. My husband has a headache,” Wilson explained. “And then they’ll say, ‘Funny thing, I had a rash last night too.’ And then they’ll start connecting the dots. Organizing by neighborhood and community is probably one of the best ways to go as far building an opposition.”
Building an Insurgency
Wilson gained national attention last fall when she exposed the radical tactics used by the natural gas industry in its fight against the growing anti-shale gas movement.
In November, Wilson attended a gas industry conference in Houston for public relations professionals called “Media & Stakeholder Relations: Hydraulic Fracturing 2011,” where she recorded presentations by industry officials. At the conference, Matt Carmichael, external affairs manager at Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, suggested attendees “download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual because we are dealing with an insurgency.”
Matt Pitzarella, director of corporate communications and public affairs at Range Resources, a leading U.S. shale gas producer, followed Carmichael on the conference agenda and explained how his company has hired several former U.S. military psychological operations, or psy-ops, experts. “It was like he didn’t want to be outdone by Carmichael,” Wilson said. “He bragged about this psy-ops. I was like, ‘Holy cow! I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’”
On Wilson’s recording, Pitzarella can be heard saying: “We have several former psy-ops folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments. Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy-ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”
Thanks to Wilson’s gumshoe work, a conference designed to hone the skills of corporate communications professionals and refine the message of shale gas producers turned into a public relations disaster. “What’s ironic is this conference was promoted as the new way forward for an industry that was losing the war on fracking,” Wilson said. “But nothing has changed. It was the same old lies.”
Along with the recommendation of hiring former military psy-ops experts, one of the other key takeaways from the conference was to make better use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, she said.
Each week, Earthworks plans to release excerpts from the recordings Wilson made at the PR conference. Two weeks ago, for example, the group released an excerpt of the comments of another Anadarko Petroleum official, who can be heard recommending that attendees avoid the term “biocide” when describing the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. “We talk about biocides. Wow, that’s a big word. That’s bleach. So we’ve got to start talking bleach,” the Anadarko official said. “So we need to kind of bring what we put in there down to where people can understand.”
In response to her activism, Wilson has appeared on the radar of the gas industry’s attack groups. “You’re nobody until Energy In Depth writes about you,” she said. “We wear that as a badge of honor. You can be very proud that you’re having an impact if they do that.”
All across the country, activists are getting noticed by energy companies and, in some cases, are gaining the upper hand. Environmental and citizen groups are using various tactics, some more effective than others, to express their frustration with how energy companies conduct their business. Along with concerns about the impact of energy resource extraction, activists are also targeting the companies that burn fossil fuels.
“Non-governmental organizations like Sierra Club and Greenpeace are targeting utilities, particularly ones that rely heavily on coal, in an effort to change decision-making in the executive suites,” said John Egan, president of Egan Energy Communications Inc., a utility-industry public relations firm. “Utilities have the tools and opportunities to respond effectively when they are targeted by guerrilla protests, but utilities face significant organizational challenges. Historically, they have been unable to move as quickly as protesters and are uncomfortable with the kind of direct confrontation espoused by activists.”
The Sierra Club’s recent campaign, AEP: What’s Your Number? and the Sierra Club’s ongoing Occupy Duke protests are “eye-catching attempts launched to shame utilities into changing their business practices,” argued Egan. These actions, as well as coordinated public campaigns in some states against electric utility companies installing smart meters in homes, have had an impact. According to Egan, public dissatisfaction with utilities “can carry significant consequences—financial, operational, and managerial—that utilities ignore at their peril.”
As highly regulated entities, electric utilities can be more easily swayed by public opinion than companies that operate at the upstream end of the industry. Natural gas producers have historically conducted business with much less oversight than utility companies. But times have changed for the exploration and production sector, thanks to the dedication of Wilson and other nongovernmental watchdogs.
“The trouble started in 2007, when drilling operators made a run on the Marcellus Shale, a broad region of gas reserves that stretches through Pennsylvania and up into Ohio and New York,” Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future and other energy-related books, explains in an article in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine. “Almost overnight, fracking’s technological miracle was recast as the next great environmental menace.”
The growing resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale forced the gas industry to create groups such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, America’s Natural Gas Alliance and Energy In Depth to tell the industry’s side of the story. Before gas companies moved into regions of the country unaccustomed to large-scale oil and gas activity, the industry operated under a relative cloak of anonymity. But that changed when the companies started poking around in states like Pennsylvania and New York. Local residents wanted to know what the gas companies were really doing and, once the drilling started, they wanted the companies to be forthright about the potential risks involved in the industrial process known as hydraulic fracturing.
Having never faced such strong suspicion or opposition, the gas industry initially hid behind the argument that releasing the chemical contents of their fracking fluid would amount to giving away a trade secret that could harm their competitive position among their fellow drillers. But eventually the companies realized they needed to throw the public a bone to get them off their backs. About a year ago, the industry unveiled a database, located at www.fracfocus.org, as a place for companies to voluntarily list the contents of the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing.
At the Houston public relations conference, one of the buzzwords was “transparency,” Wilson said. “If we don’t have anything to hide then we should stop hiding,” the company officials said. But Wilson doesn’t believe the industry really wants transparency. They wouldn’t be hiring former military psy-ops experts or closely monitoring the activities of anti-drilling activists if they wanted to build honest relationships with the communities in which they operate, she said.
EPA Finds a Friend in Texas
Aside from counseling community groups, Wilson provides assistance to the nation’s big environmental groups. “Many actually have come to me when they need legitimacy—because Earthworks organizes on a very grassroots, on-the-ground level,” she said.
In 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund paid to fly Wilson to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in North Carolina to present four case studies of the health impacts caused by shale gas production in the Barnett Shale in Texas. She met with EPA officials in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards who were working on new rules for the oil and gas industry.
The EPA officials in North Carolina “were so impressed by the information I had presented to them that EDF then flew me to D.C. to meet with Gina McCarthy’s team to present the same case study,” Wilson said. McCarthy is assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.
“While I was meeting with Gina McCarthy, she said it would really be helpful to us if you could get this information out to a wider audience in Texas because every time we try to do something to help Texas, then your governor sues us,” Wilson said.
A few months after the meeting with McCarthy, Earthworks issued a report, titled “Natural Gas Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety,” that was widely circulated in Texas. Among the recommendations in the report were:
- The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality should step up its efforts to protect public health by strictly enforcing emission limits from oil and gas exploration and production equipment.
- The Texas Railroad Commission should implement rules requiring closed-loop drilling systems and water-based drilling fluids.
- The Texas Water Development Board should exercise its authority to evaluate groundwater resources and the impact that hydraulic fracturing withdrawal is having on groundwater resources.
- Authority to regulate air emissions from oil and gas exploration and production equipment should be overseen by the U.S. EPA.
Last July, the EPA issued regulations “to reduce harmful air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry while allowing continued, responsible growth in U.S. oil and natural gas production.” Wilson welcomed the EPA’s decision to develop the rules but described them as “not anywhere near stringent enough.”
In Texas, Wilson realizes she faces an uphill battle to get the gas industry to clean up its act and ensure that communities are protected. She has no faith in the state regulatory system. “They’re industry lapdogs, not citizen watchdogs,” she said.
But she is beginning to notice a slight shift in public opinion. “It’s kind of sad, but the best way to raise awareness is to have them drill next to somebody and let them find out how horrible it is,” she said. “And they change their mind about drilling.”
In Arlington, Texas, for example, a group of Tea Party activists are now having second thoughts about gas drilling. “They were very much for drilling. They just knew they were going to get rich. They were screaming about property rights and then they drilled next to them and now they’re writing emails saying, ‘we’ve been misled,’” Wilson said. “They hate the government and don’t want anything regulated except oil and gas. Even some Tea Party people now seem to like the EPA in regard to this one very narrow issue.”