Fight Over Fracking and Flaming Water in Parker County Hits Snag in Appeals Court

A Parker County man who can ignite a 2-foot flame with gas siphoned from his well water won't get relief in a state appeals court under a law intended to stifle abusive litigation. Steve Lipsky says natural-gas producer Range Resources contaminated his water well with its nearby fracking operations. Range is suing Lipsky for defamation, claiming he falsely pilloried the company with a YouTube video of flaming hose connected to his water wellhead.

Bloomberg reported Friday that "Range Wins Appeal in Suit Against Texas Landowner," but the text of the state appeals court's ruling isn't quite so unequivocal. Lipsky asked the court to overturn district Judge Trey Loftin's ruling, which denied his motion to dismiss under state anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The state appeals court ruled Thursday that it simply didn't have jurisdiction to intervene and overturn a judge's "timely" ruling in a case still under way. That doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense given the purpose of the anti-SLAPP law -- to save folks like Lipsky from the expense and aggravation of defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits filed by powerful parties, whose sole intent is to bury someone exercising their rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Instead, the appeals court will consider the briefs filed by Lipsky and Range and decide whether to issue a writ of mandamus, which would strike Loftin's decision to let Range's suit against Lipsky go forward.

What at first looked like a rural tort case has undergone a political transmogrification into something far larger over the last year or so. For the industry and Republicans, the Lipsky case became an exemplar of Obama's out-of-control EPA after the agency hit the company with the first endangerment order in the history of Texas oil and gas. For advocates and the aggrieved, Lipsky is yet another landowner steamrolled by a deep-pocketed company, and the state regulators and politicos who serve its interests (Read Fire in the Hole for an analysis of the case).

In the process, district Judge Loftin stepped down from the case after bragging about his rulings against Lipsky in a failed bid for re-election. And EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz resigned after Republicans began circulating a video in which he compared his enforcement strategy to the spectacle of a Roman crucifixion. The crucified, industry advocates and GOP legislators said, was none other than Range Resources in Parker County.

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Brantley Hargrove