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Standing Rock protest

Millie Wahl stands in solidarity with the nationwide "Native Nations Rise" march against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Fossil Fuel Giants Have Targeted 150+ Activists With 'Judicial Harassment': Report

"People must be able to add their voice, without fear of retaliation, to the public debates that will determine the future direction of our country and our planet."

Julia Conley

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, the nonprofit legal organization EarthRights International on Monday published research showing how the fossil fuel industry has targeted more than 150 climate campaigners and community leaders in recent years with lawsuits aimed at silencing protests, as well as other forms of "judicial harassment."

"We cannot let the oil, gas, and mining industries weaponize the legal system to silence their critics."

The group identified 152 cases in which fossil fuel companies used judicial intimidation tactics to stop critics from organizing against oil, gas, and coal extraction, including 93 strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) and 49 "abusive subpoenas" directed at individuals and groups.

"The fossil fuel industry has responded to growing public concern about climate change by retaliating against those who challenge its practices," said Kirk Herbertson, senior policy adviser for EarthRights and the author of the report. "We cannot let the oil, gas, and mining industries weaponize the legal system to silence their critics."

According to EarthRights, the report—titled The Fossil Fuel Industry's Use of SLAPPs and Judicial Harassment in the United States—is the first to quantify the lengths fossil fuel companies go to within the judicial system to silence their critics, such as four anti-fracking activists in Colorado and a reporter who filmed their protests in 2018, numerous groups and people who demonstrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and a grassroots group that spoke out about public health concerns regarding a coal ash landfill in Alabama.

Oil company Energy Transfer Partners filed the lawsuits against Greenpeace, Earth First Movement, and several individuals who supported the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its campaign to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, and openly admitted the cases were meant to intimidate the protesters and others who would speak out against fossil fuel projects. The company sought $900 million in damages and invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

As the report says, Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren told a North Dakota news anchor: "Could we get some monetary damages out of this thing, and probably will we? Yeah, sure. Is that my primary objective? Absolutely not. It's to send a message—you can't do this, this is unlawful, and it's not going to be tolerated in the United States."

For years, said Greenpeace USA on Monday, Big Oil has tried to "shut us up, shut us down, and strip away our First Amendment right to free speech" using SLAPPs.

In addition to dozens of SLAPP cases, the report details "abusive subpoenas," a legal tactic used frequently by oil companies ExxonMobil and Chevron, among others. Although many of the subpoenas sought by fossil fuel giants were dismissed by courts, they can still have "a chilling effect" and discourage campaigners from communicating about their work.

"In 2012, Chevron tried to obtain the private communications of dozens of activists, lawyers, and scientists in retaliation for criticism of its environmental pollution in the Amazon region," the EarthRights International reports says.

The group released its analysis two days before Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was set to lead a congressional hearing on "the legal assault on environmental activists and the First Amendment." A Greenpeace representative is scheduled to testify.

EarthRights included in its analysis a number of recommendations for legislatures, media organizations, courts, and other stakeholders to stop powerful corporations from weaponizing the judicial system against people and groups who exercise their First Amendment rights. The group recommendations included that:

  • The U.S. Congress and state lawmakers adopt strong anti-SLAPP laws, building on the progress made in 32 states, where laws of varying scope and quality have been passed;
  • Lawyers who take on their powerful clients' SLAPP cases be sanctioned by courts and disciplined by bar associations, which ostensibly prohibit "lawyers from bringing frivolous lawsuits where there is no basis in law or fact"; and
  • The federal government take steps to ensure that law enforcement and security agencies are not perpetuating "myths that treat environmental activists and social justice leaders as terrorists," making them more vulnerable to violence and retaliation than campaigners focused on other issues.

"In the coming decades, debates over the future of energy will continue as climate change affects more communities across the United States," said EarthRights. "People must be able to add their voice, without fear of retaliation, to the public debates that will determine the future direction of our country and our planet."

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