A Texas Rebel's Fight for Her Land

How a down-on-her-luck single mother in a ramshackle trailer reinvented herself as the bright, bold, unapologetically outrageous voice of the antifracking movement

by Suzanna Andrews
Photograph: Dan Winters

There was no single event that led Wilson to start fighting; rather, she says, it was “many moments upon moments.” One of the most important, she recalls, happened with the simple act of turning on her tap. First, nothing came out. Then the water ran “black and slimy,” and after that “gray and very sandy,” before clearing up about two weeks later. Today she says she could never prove that the fracking around her property had caused her water problem, but she began to spend every spare moment researching the procedure and contacting experts.

Wilson, who blogged occasionally, began posting about well leaks, air contamination and health problems suffered by people who lived near fracking sites. Her blog was becoming frack central, a place where others could turn to have their questions answered.

Over the next few years Wilson’s property was surrounded by drilling. “There were trucks tearing up the roads,” she says. “Lights lit up the sky at night like Vegas,” and there were days “when my whole sky turned black.” Life became increasingly unbearable; at times, she recalls, “I would get in the closet and shut the door so my son couldn’t hear me cry.” Wilson had become such a staunch opponent of fracking by thenthat she no longer wanted to lease her mineral rights. But she says she had little choice. An energy company, Braden Exploration, was buying up local mineral rights, and the family who owned the other half of the rights on her land had leased theirs.

As it was, when Wilson leased her rights in October 2008, she hired a lawyer and, according to Braden’s president, G. Christopher Veeder, negotiated terms that were “significantly more favorable to [her] than the terms negotiated with most of the other owners in the area.” These included a “no drill” clause, which allowed the company to drill horizontally underher land but prohibited it from putting rigs on her 42-acre property. She also negotiated a $20,000 signing bonus and royalties of 20 percent, which began at $1,200 and today amount to payments to Wilson of about $800 a month.

On the edge of a volcano

Wilson has been accused of hypocrisy for taking money from an industry she assails. But she doesn’t see it that way. “What? I’m taking money when I didn’t have much choice, so I’m supposed to shut up and let the industry trample people? I think I have more responsibility to speak out about their abuses, because I am involved in a business relationship” with them, she says. “As long as they are harming the environment and people, I will continue to come after them, and I will use their money to do it.”

It is a view of fracking that Braden and the rest of the industry, along with other supporters of the process, dispute. Echoing most industry leaders, Braden’s Veeder says oil and gas drilling is “highly regulated” at both the state and federal level, adding that his own company has “a long history of compliance with these regulations.” Hydraulic fracturing, he says, “has been used safely for decades and in over a million wells.” And with these words he approaches the heart of the battle over fracking today: How do you measure “safe”?

Originally published in the September 2013 issue

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