It was in 2003 that Wilson says she first saw neighbors coming home with brand-new “fully loaded Dodge diesels” and the highest-quality “7X beaver hats,” suddenly taking expensive vacations and remodeling their homes. They had leased their mineral rights to the oil and gas operators who had recently discovered that marrying two technologies—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—could release the huge amounts of gas packed in the rock layers deep under the Barnett Shale. It was the birth of modern-day fracking.
When Wilson bought her property, the seller’s price did not include its mineral rights. So she scraped together every extra cent she had and purchased 50 percent of those rights, just in case an energy company someday wanted to drill. With the new explosion of fracking in the area, she was determined to lease the rights and reap the rewards. “I thought, OK, how am I going to get the most money for this?” she recalls. “I wanted to be Jed Clampett. I even wrote a couple of [energy] producers and said, ‘Come drill on my property.’ That’s how much I didn’t know.”
It is a morning in late March 2013, and the huge Texas sky, thick with clouds, is the color of dirty dishwater. Wilson is at the wheel of her tiny 33-miles-per-gallon Honda Fit—she gave up her pickup with gun rack several years ago—driving along country roads near the land she once owned. We pass miles of woodland and pastures, where cattle and sheep graze. Everything seems so peaceful, even with the gas wells dotting the landscape around us.
And then we come to the dead zone: a brown wound, some 500 feet square, in the grasslands Wilson loved. The scar was burned into the ground around 2008 when, Wilson says, a trucker dumped his load of frack waste there. Five years later, Wilson still tears up when she sees it. About a mile away, we stop at an old well pad, one of the first drill sites in her area. It is just off the road, near a stream. The scene is bucolic except for the grinding and whirring of the gas compressor, which is so loud that I can’t hear Wilson unless she shouts, even though I am sitting right next to her.
Wilson says her awakening happened slowly. When she began exploring how to get the best deal for her mineral rights, she came across a website for Earthworks, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., that was one of the first to track the early results of fracking. “I didn’t read it at first,” she says. “I didn’t want to read bad news.” Meanwhile, the drilling began near Wilson’s land. “I remember one day driving home and there was gray slimy stuff oozing down the road and into the creek,” she says. But she wasn’t sure what had caused it.
By around 2005, after she had written several companies in the hopeof leasing her mineral rights, Wilson began to pay closer attention. “I started reading a little about the pits”—the ponds at drill sites where fracking wastewater is temporarily stored—“and all of a sudden I realized, Oh. My. God. They’re here.” She’d seen the pits as she drove around near her home but hadn’t realized what they were. Nor had she been aware of the toxic chemicals they could contain, including hydrochloric acid and benzene. Wilson called the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), the regulator in charge of ensuring that the state’s groundwater is protected from oil and gas industry activities, demanding that it clean up the pits. She says the RRC told her it didn’t know where the pits were. She was shocked. It was her first brush with how loosely regulated fracking was. Many states lacked the resources to closely monitor the drilling boom. But pro-business Texas was also perceived as reluctant to police an industry that was very generous with its political contributions—a reason that in 2010 the RRC, which was described by state representative Lon Burnham as “probably the most corrupt agency in the state of Texas,” was faulted by a state oversight commission. “Everyone,” Wilson says with one of her hallmark rhetorical flourishes, “knows the state of Texas is captured.”