Lawsuit Dropped Against Four Anti-Fracking Activists in CO

Greeley, CO – On June 20, 2018, the first hearing in the lawsuit by Extraction Oil & Gas took place against four anti-fracking activists (a fifth person made a deal prior to the hearing) stemming from a non-violent direct action on March 8, 2018. The hearing lasted about an hour and concluded with two dismissals, one permanent injunction, and one preliminary injunction.

Extraction Oil & Gas, a Denver-based energy company, which is also a Delaware Corporation, is building a fracking site with 24-well pads approximately 600 feet from the Bella Romero Academy ball field and 1,000 feet from the school building. The school teaches grades 4-8, with a student body between the ages of 9 and 14.

On March 8, anti-fracking activists and concerned citizens entered Extraction’s fracking construction site with the intention to shut down work for that day, and to demonstrate a strong opposition to the project. One person locked down to a construction vehicle and others remained in the area holding signs, taking pictures and videos, and giving water and other sustenance to the person who locked down.

Graphic by Extraction Oil & Gas showing the distances from the approved fracking facilities to Bella Romero Academy

Cullen Lobe, who was present at the action on March 8, was given the permanent injunction, which orders him to:

  1. Cease trespassing on Extraction Oil & Gas’ property
  2. Cease operating drones or aerial devices over their property
  3. Cease interfering with their affiliates in any manner

Lobe still faces criminal charges in Weld County of second-degree criminal trespassing and tampering with oil and gas equipment from the action on March 8. His hearing will be in mid-August.

Brian Hedden was given the preliminary injunction, however the details of which are still being worked out. During the hearing, the attorneys representing Extraction, Polsinelli PC Senior Partner Philip W. Bledsoe and Polsinelli PC Shareholder Ghislaine G. Torres Bruner, argued strongly for the second point of ceasing operating drones or aerial devices to apply to Hedden as well.

During the non-violent direct action at Extraction’s fracking construction site on March 8, Hedden flew a drone with a camera attached to it to capture the action on film (Unicorn Riot used some of his footage in one of our videos.)

Still of a Unicorn Riot video with contributed drone footage by Brian Hedden

One of the Polsinelli lawyers continuously brought up Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations:

They are in violation of FAA regulation. We have maps that will show a no fly zone. Typically no fly zones are over airport extended radius areas where you’re supposed to tell the control tower when you’re flying a drone. Mr. Hedden didn’t do that.”

Judge Todd Taylor responded with a question, which spurred a laughing outburst in the court:

I’m confused. Does Extraction own an airport?”

Judge Taylor was quick to remind everyone in his court room that any outbursts were prohibited.

The back-and-forth about FAA regulations continued for much of the hearing.

Judge Taylor was trying to understand why the Polsinelli lawyers were focused on the legality of drone usage:

I don’t see this as evidentiary. Can a landowner keep a drone from flying over their property? If I’m in my house, can I prevent a drone from flying over it?”

A Polsinelli lawyer responded with,

I think this could set a precedent. I mean these drones have cameras.”

At this point, it became clear to Attorney Dominick Saia, Hedden’s attorney, that Extraction’s attorneys were attempting to set a precedent to prevent anyone from flying a drone over any private property, specifically to prevent concerned citizens from seeing what is happening behind the barriers of oil and gas industrial sites.

Judge Taylor wanted to hear a response from Saia:

What is the right of someone to fly unmanned drones over someone else’s property?”

Saia responded:

It goes to the heart of the case against Hedden. I think it’s something that should be decided in the criminal case.”

Judge Taylor, the Polsinelli lawyers and Saia finally came to an agreement to change the phrasing to include a minimum flying height of 500 feet over Extraction Oil & Gas’ sites.

The injunction against Hedden is not yet finalized, with the Polsinelli lawyers attempting to alter the details of it even further in out-of-court meetings with Hedden’s lawyer. Hedden still faces criminal charges in Weld County.

According to one environmental activist from Boulder, CO named Suede,

Polsinelli is a fixer for oil and gas and for other large corporations. They have done work in Chile under Pinochet to take away public value and transfer it to the billionaire predator class. They have done work in the Congo. They’re a global force in this sort of fixing activity.”

Polsinelli not only protects the interests of oil and gas corporations, it also works closely with the Denver Downtown Partnership, a business organization which successfully lobbied for the passage of the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance in 2012 to effectively criminalize people without housing.

During a peaceful demonstration in downtown Denver on May 4, 2018, around 40 people marched from the Extraction Oil & Gas office to the Polsinelli PC high rise tower. Karen Seed, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, spoke with us about the “extraction economy” that Polsinelli PC maintains and profits from:

This law firm that’s representing oil and gas extractors, that are literally poisoning children, literally killing people with this toxic industry, the same law firm also supports the dispossession of the poor in urban gentrification.”

In another related lawsuit dismissal, on June 20, 2018, Denver County District Court Judge Kenneth M. Laff dismissed a complaint against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The complaint by a coalition of environmental and social justice organizations (titled ‘Public Health Advocates’ in the complaint), argued that the COGCC unlawfully approved Extraction’s permit at their fracking construction site 1,000 feet from the Bella Romero Academy school building in Greeley.

After the hearing on June 20, the attorneys representing the Public Health Advocates filed a Notice of Appeal, a Motion for Injunction Pending Appeal, and a Motion for Expedited Ruling on Injunction Pending Appeal.

One of the attorneys, Timothy Estep, spoke with us to clarify these next steps in the lawsuit:

At the Court of Appeals, a panel of judges will evaluate our claims, without being bound by the decisions of the District Court, and we’re more confident that it will hold the COGCC accountable to its obligation to protect public health, safety, and welfare, and will stop the harm Extraction is causing at Bella Romero.

The Motion for Injunction Pending Appeal, at the core, is a request to the Colorado Court of Appeals to order Extraction to stop any work related to the Vetting Development next to Bella Romero (for example, drilling or fracking the wells) until the lawsuit is over.”

He explains further that,

The Motion for Expedited Ruling on Injunction Pending Appeal is a request that the Court of Appeals decide the Motion for Injunction Pending Appeal quicker than it might otherwise decide the motion. In short, it is saying that this is a really important issue and harms are already occurring, so delaying the decision on whether to order Extraction to stop work is going to cause more harm.”

Another tactic by environmentalists and community members who oppose fracking is a ballot initiative to create a 2,500 foot setback of new oil and gas developments from any occupied buildings or “vulnerable areas.”

The primary organization behind the ballot initiative is Colorado Rising, which has a goal of gathering 145,000 signatures by August 1, 2018 in order to successfully add the initiative onto the ballot. However petition circulators have been reporting unwanted followers as they attempt to gather signatures.

Circulators are alleging that they are being harassed and intimidated by pro-oil and gas activists. Some of the circulators believe these activists are being paid to bully them and to deter potential signers.

According to a press release on June 20, 2018:

In multiple cities across Colorado recently, the secretly paid harassers are specifically seeking out petition circulators for Colorado Rising at public events and locations. They then call in other harassers who stand uncomfortably close to the petition circulator and follow them around holding handmade signs with messages like “Would you trust this person with your info?” and yell at people not to sign the petitions. The harassers are typically large males whose behavior seems intended to intimidate both potential signers and petition circulators alike.”

Colorado Rising intends to file criminal complaints with district attorneys in the jurisdictions of the alleged harassment.

The oil and gas industry is also attempting to get an initiative on the ballot. Initiative 108 would require the government to compensate companies and property owners if their fair market value is reduced by a new law or regulation. Therefore Protect Colorado, the bill’s primary organizational sponsor, is attempting further to squash the 2,500 foot setback.

In April 2018 similar legislation was moving through the CO state government, but was killed in the House Committee on State, Veterans, & Military Affairs. The bill was called “Local Government Liable Fracking Ban Oil And Gas Moratorium” and would have required “that a local government that interferes with oil and gas operations compensate persons damaged by the interference.” In the bill’s summary, “persons” means oil and gas corporations.

In Colorado there is an ongoing battle between pro-oil and gas people and anti-oil and gas people. In fact in 2013, Weld County (where Greeley is located) attempted to secede from Colorado to become its own state. The reasons for desiring secession were the regulations and limitations being placed on the oil and gas industry by the state including Senate Bill 252, which increased renewable energy standards.

With the ongoing lawsuit against the COGCC moving into the Colorado Court of Appeals, and with the two opposing ballot initiatives, the tensions may only rise.

Mary Delffs, one of the defendants whose case was dismissed, spoke with us on the phone about the Extraction Oil & Gas lawsuit and her thoughts on the oil and gas industry:

[Extraction] is scared of negative attention and they should be because what they are doing is a crime against humanity. They should be scared. I’m scared, too. Their business is going to tank soon and we’re going to be stuck with all their mess and health effects.”

Unicorn Riot will continue to provide coverage when updates are available.

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Read our other coverage related to the fracking project near Bella Romero: