In a racketeering case that could result in nearly a billion dollars in fines, the developer behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline has accused a handful of environmental groups of engaging in eco-terrorism during protests of the pipeline’s construction.
The suit could have profound impacts on the future of environmental activism in the Trump-era and beyond.
“This suit is part of a rising tendency on the part of government and industry to demonize activists and to criminalize free speech activity,” Ted Hamilton, co-founder of the Climate Defense Project, a non-profit environmental interest group not involved with the litigation, told ThinkProgress via email. “Fossil fuel companies know that they’re losing public support for their poisonous activities — and so label their opponents ‘terrorists’ and seek gag orders in court.”
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, Energy Transfer Partners accuses Greenpeace and other environmental activists who helped organize pipeline protests of fraud, racketeering, and inciting terrorism, alleging that the actions of these environmental groups caused “enormous harm to people and property along the pipeline’s route.” The company claims that actions by environmental groups caused at least $300 million in damages, but could seek up to three times that in court.
Energy Transfer Partners also accuses the groups of knowingly spreading misinformation “for purposes of increasing donations and advancing their political or business agendas.” The company argues that claims the company used excessive and illegal force against protesters, damaged sacred sites during construction, and constructed the pipeline “without consulting with and over the rights and objections” of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are “a series of false, alarmist, and sensational claims.”
Reports of misconduct and violence have plagued the Texas-based energy developer throughout the pipeline’s construction. Earlier this month, state regulators in North Dakota fined Energy Transfer Partners $15,000 for failing to alert state authorities about the discovery of indigenous artifacts during the pipeline’s construction. Under the settlement, Energy Transfer Partners would be allowed to make a $15,000 donation to the State Historic Preservation Office without accepting fault. The company has until tomorrow to decide whether to accept the state’s offer.
In September of last year, Democracy Now! recorded instances of security employed by Energy Transfer Partners using dogs against protesters. During the months-long protest — in which thousands came to North Dakota to camp along the proposed route of the pipeline — clashes between protesters and law enforcement turned violent on more than one occasion. Officers reportedly used water cannons in freezing temperatures, rubber bullets, and tear gas to subdue protesters. According to protester accounts, several people were left bleeding or unconscious from rubber bullets. In response to accounts of militarized force against protesters, both the United Nations and Amnesty International USA sent investigators to Standing Rock to monitor potential human rights violations.
Tuesday’s lawsuit is hardly the first attempt to paint protesters at Standing Rock as engaging in terrorist activities. Documents obtained earlier this summer by the Intercept and Grist show that a security firm hired by Energy Transfer Partners also conducted “an intrusive military-style surveillance and counterintelligence campaign,” labeling the protesters as “jihadists” in an attempt to justify further escalation against them.
Following continued controversy over the pipeline, activists did succeed in convincing several banks and cities from divesting in their financial stake in the project. In February of this year, Seattle became the first city to sever ties with Wells Fargo, which was a major financial backer of the project; a month later, the Dutch banking and financial services company ING sold their stake in the pipeline.
“The lawsuit is a sign of weakness on ETP’s part and proof that direct action works,” Hamilton said. “Even if the company’s claims are ridiculously overblown, the pipeline company is acknowledging that protesters stand in the way of fossil fuel expansion and that it is possible to slow or stop environmental destruction, even without the help of a complicit government.”
Opponents of the pipeline won a brief victory in December of 2016, when the Obama administration ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental impact study of the pipeline’s crossing under the Missouri River. That directive was almost immediately reversed by President Donald Trump, who used executive action to order the Army Corps to “review and approve in an expedited manner” the necessary permits for the pipeline’s completion. The pipeline was completed earlier this spring and officially began transporting oil at the beginning of June.
Before assuming office, Trump had invested between $500,000 and a million dollars in Energy Transfer Partners, though he claims to have since sold his stake in the company. Kelcy Warren, Energy Transfer Partners’ chief executive, was also a financial backer of Trump’s presidential bid, giving more than $100,000 to his campaign.
But connections between the pipeline and the Trump administration no longer stop at financial interests: Energy Transfer Partners is being represented in the lawsuit by the law firm of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP; Trump’s personal lawyer is a founding member of the firm. According to Energy Transfer Partners’ press release announcing the lawsuit, Michael Bowe — who is currently part of the president’s legal team dealing with the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — is the developer’s primary attorney for the lawsuit.
Bowe is also the primary attorney for Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP in a separate racketeering lawsuit against Greenpeace, brought in 2016 by the Canadian pulp and paper company Resolute Forest Products. Like Energy Transfer Partners, Resolute is also seeking $300 million against Greenpeace for defaming the company in an effort to raise money.
In a statement, Greenpeace called the newest lawsuit “meritless,” and accused the Kasowitz law firm of serving as “corporate mercenaries willing to abuse the legal system to silence legitimate advocacy work.”
“It is yet another classic ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’ (SLAPP), not designed to seek justice, but to silence free speech through expensive, time-consuming litigation,” Greenpeace USA General Counsel Tom Wetterer said in a statement. “This has now become a pattern of harassment by corporate bullies, with Trump’s attorneys leading the way.”