Some 500,000 barrels of crude oil flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline each day, and have done so for over a year now.
You might think that Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company that built the pipeline, would consider that a success. So, why is the company suing Greenpeace for a staggering $900 million in damages?
ETP claims that defendants defamed the company by supporting the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight to block the pipeline, and participated in a criminal conspiracy to damage “critical business and financial relationships.” The suit also names BankTrack, a handful of individuals as defendants, and “Earth First”—which is not a standalone organization (the notice was served to Earth First! Journal, a publication based in Florida). ETP also alleges that Greenpeace misrepresented the route’s violation of tribal treaty land, and as a result is defrauding their funders. The lawsuit does not name any indigenous groups.
Greenpeace and Earth First! Journal filed to have the case dismissed. At the end of July, judge Billy Roy Wilson of the federal District Court for Eastern Arkansas dismissed the allegations that BankTrack’s actions can be considered racketeering. He also said the suit against Greenpeace is “vague” and that the “factual basis for the claims appears intentionally obscured.” ETP has been ordered to provide more details about their complaint.
The law firm representing ETP is founded by Marc Kasowitz, who has also served as a personal attorney for President Donald Trump. The lawsuit is invoking racketeering laws that were designed to be used against the criminal organizations like the Mafia, and can award up to triple damages.
Discouraging pipeline protesters elsewhere around the country seems to be one of the goals of the lawsuit. During an interview with CNBC Kelcy Warren, ETP’s billionaire CEO, said that by delaying the pipeline, the company lost millions of dollars. But his motivations go deeper than just wringing damages from a group of NGOs. “They’re doing this elsewhere, the same cast of characters, and somebody’s got to stand up,” Warren said. “And we chose to do that.”
Even if the case gets dismissed, it could intimidate other environmental defenders from speaking out against large corporations that have the means to drag them into litigation. The fear of litigation could have a chilling effect on public protest and freedom of speech.
This type of lawsuit, commonly called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” or SLAPP suit, aims to drain defendants of money while diverting time and energy from campaign work or other activities. If such a tactic were to be successful, it could amount to what the Freedom of the Press Foundation describes as “privatized censorship.”
The criminal conspiracy element could also have a negative effect on freedom of association, by going after both environmental organizations and individuals who worked together to oppose the pipeline. If the RICO argument succeeds, different organizations fighting for a common cause could be more vulnerable to being labeled co-conspirators.
Greenpeace, however, isn’t backing down despite the lawsuit. “One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our campaign work is really not let it silence us,” said Greenpeace’s Molly Dorozenski. “When we get sued we actually make the effort to amp up our campaign on something, rather than shut it down.” At the same time that the nonprofit has filed motions for the case to be dismissed, she says the organization has doubled down on its work opposing pipelines. Greenpeace also continues to raise awareness about ETP’s poor environmental record, particularly around pipeline spills.
Environmentalists and others who are involved in protesting corporations should be watching this case closely, as the outcome could embolden other companies facing public outcry to be quicker to sue. “If [ETP] is successful, it opens up so much potential for people to sue in ways that are basically designed to silence all of us,” said Dorozenski.Share This