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Energy Transfer Partners Brings Defamation Claim Against Environmental Groups

The Law Office of C. William Smalling, P.C. Jan. 20, 2018

After years of protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe,  indigenous rights activistsand environmental groups, the Trump Administration granted final construction approval to Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) in January 2017. The approval was the culmination of a hard fought battle that required the advice and counsel of experienced energy and environmental attorneys.

Although the underground pipeline has been completed and oil is flowing through it, the controversy has resurfaced now that ETP is suing a number of environmental groups involved in the anti-pipeline protests. The Dallas-based energy company is seeking more than $1 billion in damages and attorneys fees from Greenpeace, EarthFirst and Banktrack for defamation, racketeering, interference with business and criminal conspiracy.

In response, attorneys for Greenpeace argue that the lawsuit is strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) and an attempt to stifle the free speech of environmental groups. It is worth noting that some states, including Texas, have anti-SLAPP laws in place that are designed to protect free speech. These laws provide for expedited hearing of claims and the right of defendant’s to recover legal fees and punitive damages; however no such law has been enacted in North Dakota, the state where ETP filed its lawsuit.

ETP’s Defamation Claims

ETP believes it hasa valid claims and that Greenpeace and the other groups were involved in illegal activities in North Dakota, particularly with respect to the funding of the protests.

The lawsuit painted Greenpeace and EarthFirst as “rogue eco-terrorists,” accusing the groups of Patriot Act violations and using the tribe’s cause as a fundraising platform. In addition, ETP argues that BankTrack spread false claims against ETP bankers, investors, research analysts and business constituents.

BankTrack is an advocacy group that provides the public with information about bank investments and which entities support environmental and human right abuses. During the Dakota Access standoff, activists urged banks and individuals to divest funds from ETP and other entities that were involved in constructing the pipeline.

EarthJustice, an environmental nonprofit that that represented Standing Rock in court to stop a pipeline permit has been accused of lying to the press about the environmental threat posed by the pipeline. The lawsuit also names several groups for orchestrating a disinformation campaign against the pipeline.

While the defamation claims may be hard to prove since opinions and protests are protected forms of free speech, ETP may be able to make headway in court with the conspiracy and racketeering claims. The lawsuit accuses Greenpeace, BankTrust, and Earth First of inciting money laundering, arson, terrorism, cyber attacks, and sending death threats to employees.

Greenpeace has filed a motion to dismiss the case, which is still pending. If the case proceeds, ETP must be able to show there was a direct link between the defendants and others who engaged in violence or other alleged criminal activity.