Here’s the Drill

An extraction technique known as fracking has unleashed not only a frenzied gas boom across the country but also crucial questions about  contamination and regulation. For Barnett Shale residents Tim and Christine Ruggiero, the answers can’t come soon enough.
Here’s the Drill
A FRACKING MESS: Tim and Christine Ruggiero have sued Aruba Petroleum over toxic emissions and property damage.
Photograph by Van Ditthavong

Looking back, Tim Ruggiero told me, he really did consider firing his shotgun. We were sitting in his dining room this summer, almost two years after the men had first appeared on his land. But he remembered the day clearly: September 16, 2009. He had been on his way back from the airport, after a work trip to Miami. His wife, Christine, had left their quiet ranch home near Decatur at seven-thirty; dropped their nine-year-old daughter, Reilly, off at school; and headed to her office.

The couple had bought land in Wise County, north of Fort Worth, in 2004. It was their dream property: ten acres with a nearby pond that was stocked with fish. There was room for horses, and eventually they’d bought two, Ninya and Sweetheart, for Reilly to ride. In the summer of 2009, however, they began to feel uneasy about their future. Aruba Petroleum, an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Plano, had sent a crew onto the 38-acre property of the Ruggieros’ neighbors Jim and Pat Headen and drilled a gas well in the front yard. Incensed by the destruction on his neighbors’ acreage, Tim had posted protest signs on his land. A few days later, he’d found one vandalized with spray-painted images of genitalia and the words “U R Next.”

So when Christine received a phone call at work from Pat that September afternoon, her heart raced. “There are bulldozers on your land,” Pat said. “They knocked down your fence. Your horses are wandering around.” Christine jumped in her car and sped down U.S. 380. She arrived to find the fence around the horse pasture sliced apart with cutting torches. The property was full of men and pickup trucks and bulldozers. The horses were nowhere to be seen.

Christine found the site supervisor, Kasey Denson, and begged him to leave. Tim showed up soon afterward. He was furious. “I about lost my mind,” he recalled. “I was up in his face, screaming, demanding he get off my land.” They had met Denson a couple of weeks earlier, when he had knocked on the Ruggieros’ door to discuss Aruba’s interest in their property; they had asked that the company look elsewhere. Now, as before, their pleas were of little use. The crew, explained Denson, was under orders to drill two gas wells. It was then that Tim, in a blinding, speechless rage, had gone inside to find his shotgun. He loaded it with buckshot and began to head outside, the gun heavy in his hands.

Then a little voice said, ‘Wait, is this a good idea?’ ” Tim told me. “I realized that they probably wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t legal.”

Which it was. Like a number of homesteads around theirs, the Ruggieros’ property had once belonged to a rancher named Herb Wright, who had sold off most of his one-thousand-acre spread but retained the mineral rights. (Surface rights and mineral rights are often sold separately in Texas.) The Ruggieros had learned that they were merely surface owners when they signed the title to their house, but they hadn’t thought twice about it. “Our agent just said that if we found oil on our land, it would belong to the mineral leaseholder,” Tim told me. “And we said, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ ”

So when Denson showed up with his crew, saying that Wright had leased almost all his mineral rights to Aruba, there was little the Ruggieros could do. Denson presented them with a surface-use agreement that detailed Aruba’s intended activity and proposed compensation for damages. State law gives mineral rights owners full rein when it comes to getting at their assets, so the agreement was, in effect, a formality. Wright’s lease to Aruba, Denson told the Ruggieros, required the company to pay them only $1,500 per well. If they signed, the company would give them $15,000 per well. The Ruggieros signed.

Aruba, which has holdings in the Barnett Shale—a geologic formation that spreads in an arc beneath North Texas—drilled the two wells and then extracted gas by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves blasting shale rock thousands of feet underground with a million or more gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to release trapped oil or gas. Over the past ten years, fracking has unlocked many new natural gas reserves around the country, but it has also brought a wave of controversy. The rush to drill has occurred everywhere from Pennsylvania, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale; to Arkansas, above the Fayetteville Shale; to Texas, where fracking of the Barnett Shale began in earnest in 2005 and where the Eagle Ford Shale, to the south, now attracts workers from all over the world. Those in the gas industry say these reserves can create jobs, end U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and provide a cleaner alternative to coal. But reports of contaminated groundwater and high-profile spills have dogged the boom, prompting calls from state and federal agencies for closer regulation. And since many of the reserves sit beneath populated areas—the Barnett Shale, where Dallas and Fort Worth are located, had 15,269 fracked wells as of August—there have been frequent conflicts with landowners.

The Ruggieros’ home is decorated in traditional Texas-ranch style: Saltillo tile floors, rustic wood chairs, five-pointed Lone Stars everywhere. Framed Bible quotes hang on the walls. Tim and Christine do not seem the type to solve disputes with gunfire. But they do project the kind of resolve that comes from months of battle. Last November the couple filed suit against Aruba for devaluing their property and exposing them to toxic chemicals. Though Aruba has denied their allegations, this summer the couple attended several pretrial hearings, and they anticipate a trial this fall.

Tim is a solidly built fortysomething with graying hair and an air of uneasy, coiled energy. Christine is prim and fit. As we talked, she showed me videos, pictures, and tests documenting the changes on their land. Within a year of the drilling, a well on their property was one of the first

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