Sharon Wilson is slouched in a comfortably worn brown leather armchair in the cozy, light-filled living room of her home in Allen, Texas, a prosperous suburb of Dallas. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, she is checking the hundreds of e-mails, texts and voice mails that have come in throughout the day from some of the many people who seek her advice—a roster that includes lawyers, environmentalists and newspaper reporters from around the country. On the mantel opposite her sits a photograph. Simply framed, it shows a beautiful woman, her face buoyed by clouds of fluffy blonde hair, staring at the camera through eyes that look just this side of awake. She wears a peasant blouse and a small, pillowy pout. There is a shadow of physical resemblance to the Sharon Wilson of today—the high cheekbones, the watchful, catlike green eyes and the blonde hair, although it is shorter now, and faded—but in attitude and demeanor the woman in the armchair seems very different. “That,” she says of the photograph, “was another life.”
During that life, which ended not so long ago, Wilson was living in a remote, dilapidated trailer with spotty electricity and a cracked tub that leaked all over the bathroom floor. A single mother facing a mountain of bills, she felt helpless and, she says, “almost out of hope.” Then, in 2008, an energy company paid her a $20,000 signing bonus and promised $1,200 a month in royalties for the right to “frack” natural gas under her property. “I actually begged them to drill my land,” she says, widening her eyes as if still in disbelief at the distance she has traveled. Now, five years after making that deal, Wilson is one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the oil and gas industry, and she has galvanized opposition to what many consider either the most promising or the most dangerous method of energy extraction today.
One of the most contentious issues in the nation, hydraulic fracturing—the process of injecting fluids deep into the ground at high pressure in order to break up the shale to release the natural gas within—has divided families and pitted neighbor against neighbor. According to the oil and gas industry and the scientists, politicians and environmentalists who support it, fracking is a safe drilling process thatrepresents energy independence, a boom in jobs and tax revenues and a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. On the opposite side is a different set of scientists, politicians and environmentalists, who say the benefits of fracking have been exaggerated and who are concerned about the possible environmental and health risks of this drilling process. The battle, says New York real estate and environmental lawyer Elisabeth Radow, has created an army of “citizen activists”—ordinary Americans from Texas and California to Colorado and Arkansas to New York and Pennsylvania who feel that their lives and communities are being threatened by fracking. At 60, Sharon Wilson is a leader of that army. Based in north Texas—the heart of oil and gas land and fracking’s ground zero—she was one of the first to sound an alarm about the possible dangers. “She’s a pioneer,” says Radow.
Tough, blunt and witty, Wilson is the force behind Bluedaze.com, an award-winning antifracking site that has become a top source of news and data for the movement. An investigator, advocate, instigator and grassroots organizer, Wilson—aka TXsharon, her nom de blog—has been praised by one supporter for “shining the light of truth where it’s needed.” She has also won admiration for some of her more dramatic tactics. At an energy-industry convention, for example, she recorded executives as they talked about using military “psyops,” or psychological-operations expertise, against members of the media, environmentalists and community opponents of fracking. Then she published the audiotapes on her blog: "Gasholes Caught with Their Fracking Pants Down" read her headline.