BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Environmental groups being sued by the developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline say the lawsuit is an attack on free speech and an effort to punish supporters of American Indian tribes that oppose the project over fears of environmental harm.
Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace, BankTrack and Earth First, alleging they disseminated false and misleading information about the project, interfered with its construction and damaged the company's reputation and finances through illegal acts.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in North Dakota cites "a pattern of criminal activity and a campaign of misinformation for purposes of increasing donations and advancing their political or business agendas," and seeks damages that could approach $1 billion.
BankTrack called the allegations "outrageous" and maintained it did nothing wrong in informing the public and commercial banks about the potential impact of the $3.8 billion pipeline to move North Dakota oil to a distribution point in Illinois. It also denied it benefited financially from its efforts.
"BankTrack considers the lawsuit an attempt ... to silence civil society organizations, and to curb their crucial role in helping to foster business conduct globally that protects the environment, recognizes the rights and interests of all stakeholders, and respects human rights," the group said in a statement.
Greenpeace attorney Tom Wetterer said the lawsuit was meritless, "harassment by corporate bullies" and an effort "to silence free speech."
Michael Bowe, one of the company's attorneys, countered that the response by Greenpeace "was not to defend the truth of its challenged statements, but to attack the lawyers who exposed those statements as false."
"Our laws hold accountable those who intentionally make demonstrably false statements, and there is no special exception for Greenpeace," Bowe said.
Earth First did not reply to Associated Press requests for comment.
Earthjustice, whose attorneys are representing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in a federal lawsuit that aims to shut down the pipeline, isn't a defendant in the lawsuit but is mentioned throughout as being part of a vast network of groups and people who allegedly conspired against the pipeline.
Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said the lawsuit is "nothing more than an attack on all those who stood up for the tribe in this historic fight, packaged as a legal claim."
ETP said the company "has an obligation to its shareholders, partners, stakeholders and all those negatively impacted by the violence and destruction intentionally incited by the defendants to file this lawsuit."
The 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) pipeline began operating June 1, after months of delays caused by legal wrangling and on-the-ground protests. Police made 761 arrests in North Dakota between August and February.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter/com/NicholsonBlake