Steve Lipsky’s tainted water well had already stirred national debate about the impacts of oil and gas production. Now it stars in a free speech dispute that has landed in Texas’ highest court – the biggest test of a state law meant to curb attempts to stifle public protest.
So much methane has migrated into the well on Lipsky’s Parker County estate that he can ignite the stream that flows from it with the flick of a barbeque lighter. The Wisconsin transplant blames the phenomenon on nearby gas drilling in the Barnett Shale. In the past three years, he has shared those suspicions in Youtube videos, the film Gasland Part II and in news reports.
Range Resources, the accused local driller, has maintained it is not to blame. In 2011 it filed a lawsuit against Lipsky, his wife Shyla Lipsky and Alisa Rich, a toxicologist the couple hired to test their well. The $3 million suit alleges the three conspired to “defame and disparage” Range and force federal regulators to intervene. Range representatives did not respond to interview requests.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency charged Range with tainting the well and ordered the company to provide drinking water to Lipsky and a neighbor. But the agency withdrew that order after the Railroad Commission of Texas said Range was not linked to the contamination.
Following more complaints from Lipsky and his neighbors, the commission took a second look at the contamination. Its report last May said evidence was “insufficient” to implicate the driller. The methane “may be attributed” to unrelated processes, including migration from the shallower Strawn formation, which lies just beneath the aquifer, the report concluded. “Further investigation is not planned at this time.”
Independent scientists are still studying the neighborhood’s wells.
Attorneys for the Lipskys and Rich have asked courts to dismiss the defamation suit, pointing to a 2011 tort reform law intended to protect free speech. The law opens the door for the early dismissal of meritless legal claims filed to intimidate critics – so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, that seek to quiet opponents by drowning them in legal fees.
“It’s them trying to intimidate other people, meaning, ‘How dare you ever accuse us of something like this?’” Lipsky, who pays $1,000 a month to truck in water from nearby Weatherford, said of Range.