SLAPPed for speaking out about oil and gas development.
Pete Kolbenschlag is a public lands, conservation, and climate change activist living in the North Fork Valley of Colorado. As the director of Mountain West Strategies, he helps communities to organize campaigns around oil and gas development. In 2017, he was SLAPPed after posting an online comment in response to an article about an oil and gas company operating in the community, called SG Interests (SGI).
Answers edited for length and clarity. Pete spoke with Kirk Herbertson, PTP member and Senior Policy Advisor at EarthRights International.
You’re a longtime activist who has been a defender of public lands and a watchdog of the oil and gas industry. What’s been happening in the North Fork Valley of Colorado, where you live?
The North Fork is a coal-dependent community that is transitioning away from coal. We have one active coal mine and two that have closed down in the last 7 or 8 years. Over the last decade and a half or so, the economy has sought to diversify, and an agro-tourism and outdoor recreation economy has sprouted up. Broadband has gotten installed, so there’s a lot of local business that can be here now that is attracted to public lands, local food and wineries. And there’s been a fight here around oil and gas development on the public lands, because people perceive that as a risk to the new economy that’s developing generally, and specifically because it’s all uphill from us and affects water quality and irrigation of fields. It’s both a general threat to quality of life and a specific threat to agriculture.
I’ve been an advocate on these types of issues for a long time, and when they started to pop up in my own community, I got involved. We have developed a lot of resistance here in the valley to expanded oil and gas development. So I’ve been a leader in that effort and it attracted attention.
Why did you decide to speak out against SG Interests?
In general, I’ve been skeptical and critical of SG Interests, both because of their designs and intent on the valley where I live, but also because my work is concerned with oil and gas development on public lands and the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels, not expanding them. In this case, though, I was just commenting online on an article I read about SGI. I was not seeking to find an article about them that I could comment on. I came across an article and I left a bit of a snarky reply that set all of this off.
How did SG Interests respond?
The comment I left was in November of 2016 on an article in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. And in February 2017, I had a knock on the door and there was someone—a deputy moonlighting as a process server—serving me a complaint from SGI. They were suing me.
When I looked at the complaint and saw the company name, I knew right away what it was, that it was a SLAPP suit. It was the first thought that came into my head when I saw the company’s name there. I thought, “I wonder what they would sue me for,” and when I read the complaint, I was really taken aback by how absurd it seemed.
Did you generally feel threatened, or were you confident from the beginning this thing would be thrown out?
I was confident from the beginning that it was a bunch of bonk. Throughout, my attorney was more confident that it would be thrown out than I was, to be honest. It was worrisome. But my attorney was always pretty confident and he was right.
In a lot of interviews, you’ve talked about the support your community provided for you. How did your community step up to help?
After I reviewed the complaint, my colleagues said I should get counsel and helped me get in touch with Steve Zansberg, who represented me. Once I met with Steve, and he agreed to take my case, then I set up a crowd funding site and posted a note on my Facebook page.
At that point, people here rallied. Someone who’s a professional videographer contacted me right away about putting together a crowd funding video for me and then I just put a note on my Facebook page saying we’d love to have people. Not only did a bunch of people show up for my video, but they had made all these signs. I had not asked for the signs but they had made all these signs and showed up.
Are these types of intimidation tactics common in Colorado?
When the state legislature was considering anti-SLAPP legislation, which became law earlier this year, I testified and a couple other people testified about incidents they were going through. I don’t think SLAPPs are super common, but they seem to be becoming more common. Hopefully now it’s been nipped in the bud here in Colorado.
The oil and gas industry’s willingness to go towards bullying and intimidation tactics does seem to be a real thing. It’s an industry that isn’t afraid to play with hardball tactics, or at least an industry that has operators that are not afraid to play with hardball tactics. Obviously, it’s a lot of different folks in the industry.
Your case led directly to the passage of Colorado’s first anti-SLAPP law. How did that come about?
I think it helped frame conversations that people were already having around that legislation. My case was part of a convergence of things that came together that made it ripe. I was able to go testify, but like I said, a couple other people did, too. Everyone had a pretty compelling case. The legislation had tremendous bipartisan support.
Did this experience change how you think about free speech?
I’ve done this work for a long time, so it wasn’t like I was necessarily surprised that a company would resort to this, but going through it and realizing that, you know, even though they’ve lost three or four times now in court, and have to pay my attorney fees, obviously I’m not going to recover 100% of my costs from SGI. That is just unfair and a problem, because I’m an individual and I’m not a billionaire. And in this case, I’m basically being attacked for what have now been found to be frivolous and vexatious charges against me by a company owned by billionaires. It’s hard to compete and go against that, and if that’s the kind of power that’s arrayed against free speech, then it raises deeper concerns about how economic power is waged in this country.
What is your advice for other activists and community leaders who want to speak out?
When this all happened to me, I wanted to turn it into two teachable moments. One is to show activists that you can fight against these sorts of things. Obviously, be aware that there are people and interests that will go after you. It doesn’t always matter if what you say is correct or truthful or not. Don’t be shy about speaking your truth, but get your facts right.
And second, my case hopefully shows companies that these kinds of tactics won’t be effective and are likely to actually backfire. Certainly a lot more people have heard about the backstory and my case than ever would have read a little online comment on the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
I’ve been SLAPPed and need help