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Fossil fuel giants abuse system to silence protesters

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The fossil fuel industry has been criticised for "judicially harassing" its critics (Screenshot via YouTube)

Recent research from EarthRights International shows how the fossil fuel industry uses "judicial harassment" to target climate campaigners with lawsuits to silence protests, writes Julia Conley.

'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.'


~ Kirk Herbertson, senior policy advisor, EarthRights International

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, nonprofit legal organisation EarthRights International recently 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'.

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

Said senior policy adviser for EarthRights International and author of the report, Kirk Herbertson:

'The fossil fuel industry has responded to growing public concern about climate change by retaliating against those who challenge its practices. We cannot let the oil, gas and mining industries weaponise the legal system to silence their critics.'

According to EarthRights International, 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. Examples include 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 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 Act (RICO).

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, 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.

The EarthRights International report says:

'... 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 group released its analysis two days before Congressman Jamie Raskin – who represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives – 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 International included in its analysis a number of recommendations for legislatures, media organisations, courts and other stakeholders to stop powerful corporations from weaponising 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.

Said EarthRights International:

'In the coming decades, debates over the future of energy will continue as climate change affects more communities across the United States. 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.'

This article by Julia Conley was originally published by Common Dreams under the title 'Fossil Fuel Giants Have Targeted 150+ Activists With "Judicial Harassment": Report'. It is republished under a Creative Commons licence.

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