Vera Scroggins, you are hereby charged with conspiracy to commit free speech. How do you plead?
That seems to be the way a Susquehanna County battle over hydraulic fracturing (usually called fracking) will play out if a Houston gas-drilling company gets it way, which is usually what happens in Pennsylvania when that company is involved.
Cabot Oil & Gas Co. dragged Scroggins into court in October after the anti-fracking activist started making waves in that county, conducting tours to show how she thought Cabot was ruining the countryside and water resources.
The tours have attracted some people from New York State, where there has been a moratorium on fracking until there is a better idea of how much harm it causes. (Pennsylvania took the opposite approach, encouraging rampant tax-free drilling first, and then waiting until later to see how bad the damage was.)
The New Yorkers in her tours included celebrities like Yoko Ono and Susan Sarandon, who played Louise in "Thelma & Louise," one of five films in which she was nominated for academy awards. She also is known as a hard-charging activist, herself.
Cabot is one of the Texas and Oklahoma gas-drilling companies lovingly coddled by the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett — after they gave Corbett millions of dollars in "political campaign contributions."
Scroggins, 63, a retired nurse's aide in the tiny town of Brackney, was becoming more than a thorn in Cabot's side. She was more like a strident harpoon through corporate guts, so the company sicced its lawyers on her, accusing her of trespass.
An injunction was granted in October by Susquehanna County Judge Kenneth Seamans, banning Scroggins from setting foot on any Cabot property. Ordinarily, that would seem reasonable, but it included property under which Cabot held underground mining rights, not surface rights.
How much property? "They leased the mineral rights to over 300 square miles in Pennsylvania. That's a lot of land," said Scott Michelman, a lawyer with the Washington-based Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represents Scroggins.
"It is hereby ordered," said the October ruling by Judge Seamans, "that Ms. Scroggins is restrained and prohibited from entering upon property owned and/or leased by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation including but not limited to well sites, well pads and access roads."
That meant Scroggins could be charged with criminal trespass if she tiptoed on any part of any of those 300 square miles that exist in Susquehanna County. News reports have said Cabot has mineral right leases under, or owns outright, about 40 percent of all the land in that county.
So it follows that all those who live in, or venture onto, 40 percent of Susquehanna County can get in big trouble if they start saying things that displease this company.
The ruling also said that if Scroggins tries to engage in free speech in any part of that 40 percent, she "may be responsible for [Cabot's] attorney fees incurred for enforcing this order." (News reports said Cabot pays its lawyers $1,500 an hour, so that could add up to a pretty penny for her.)
Those 300 square miles controlled by Cabot, Michelman told me, include places like hospitals and stores high above the Marcellus Shale formations where Cabot has gas-drilling dibs, reachable with huge horizontal drilling shafts that use toxic solutions to break up gas-bearing rock.
Part of those solutions gush back to the surface, sometimes contaminating wells or streams, but that does not seem to bother Corbett or the gas-drilling industry.
As reported Tuesday in The Morning Call, there was a hearing before Seamans on his October edict aimed at silencing Scroggins. A full trial on whether he'll make that October injunction permanent is set for May 1; Monday's hearing was on a request to relax some provisions before then. By deadline time on Thursday, there was no indication of when he might act on that.
Tuesday's story said there was a 150-foot exclusion zone that applied to Scroggins. Michelman, however, said that was not correct. In pushing for harsher restrictions against Scroggins' anti-fracking activities, a 150-foot zone was requested by Cabot.
Whether it's a ban on Scroggins coming within 150 feet of Cabot's lease lines, or a ban on practicing free speech on any of those 300 square miles, it strikes me as being similar to the type of free speech allowed in North Korea.
I placed a call to Cabot's lawyers to ask about all this, but no one got back to me.
Michelman said Scroggins has stipulated she'd agree not to trespass on Cabot's gas well pods or any other land actually owned by Cabot, and would be careful not to block Cabot's access to such properties, but challenges such widespread blanket bans.
If Cabot prevails in this dispute, think what it will mean to people living in the rest of Pennsylvania. If a Texas gas-drilling company does not like what you say, it could slap an injunction on you for wandering into a hospital or other site situated above leased rock formations deep underground.
They may get away with it if you are as obscure as Scroggins. Thelma and Louise might be a different story. So the next time I visit Susquehanna County, I'm going to be on the lookout for a 1966 Thunderbird.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays