By Sharon Kelly
In 2017, while the Trump administration absorbed media attention with its cries of “fake news,” the oil and gas industry was busy launching private legal actions across the U.S., attacking critics who presented information and opinions to the public.
Those lesser-noticed legal maneuvers, if successful in 2018, could create chilling new precedents, keeping important facts away from the public eye and making it more expensive and risky to talk about the fossil fuel industry’s real and potential impacts on human health and the air, land, and water.
The past year brought some of the most aggressive lawsuits by the oil and gas industry against environmentalists in recent decades. They included legal moves aimed at preventing researchers from discussing their findings, motions painting political movements as for-profit conspiracies, and even a $5 million dollar lawsuit brought against a cancer patient whose tap water, state investigators determined years ago, was contaminated by gas drilling — by the company that is now suing him.
That lawsuit, filed by a shale gas drilling company, claims that a Pennsylvania landowner violated a non-disclosure agreement by talking to the press about his fouled drinking water, his home’s plummeting property value, the impacts of truck traffic on his community, the poor air quality around his home since drilling and fracking began in the area, or other problems he believes the company itself caused.
These oil and gas industry cases — involving novel uses of conspiracy, defamation, and even wire fraud laws — represent new and concerted efforts by large corporations to make individuals and groups pay for presenting information and opinions to the public.
Dimock, Pennsylvania, landowner Ray Kemble, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer in March 2017, was sued in August by Cabot Oil and Gas, which drilled a series of Marcellus shale wells in Kemble’s hometown.
Back in 2010 state environmental regulators concluded that Cabot Oil and Gas’s drilling operations had contaminated the area’s groundwater and ordered the company to cough up $4.6 million. In May 2016, federal health officials concluded that the drinking water in Dimock was indeed unsafe, and in December 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long-awaited national study warned that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has contaminated drinking water supplies across the U.S. (without directly commenting on Kemble’s situation).
Cabot signed settlements with virtually all of the families drawing water from the contaminated Pennsylvania aquifer, though the precise terms of those agreements remain secret. A separate federal lawsuit, brought by two families down the road from Kemble, the Elys and the Huberts, was settled in September for an undisclosed amount, a sign that the Ely and Hubert settlement also includes a non-disclosure clause.
Cabot’s new lawsuit argues that a 2012 settlement bars Kemble from “disparaging” the company by discussing any harm he believes the company caused him — or even talking about things the company did after the settlement was reached.
But good luck finding out what exactly a settlement agreement between Kemble and the company might have said: In December, Cabot argued in court that it didn’t need to provide the document at the heart of the case to the attorneys representing Kemble’s co-defendents, nevermind the public.
Non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements have been in the public spotlight lately amid the #MeToo scandals, after it came to light that powerful sexual harassers and assaulters frequently used the clauses to prevent those they assaulted from talking publicly.
Critics argue that non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements (NDAs) should also not be used in cases where the public health could be at risk, warning that NDAs could, for example, keep someone sickened after drinking bad water from warning their neighbors about the danger.
Legal experts have questioned whether courts would ever actually enforce such an order — so the case brought by Cabot against Kemble could set a significant precedent.
Cabot also sued Kemble’s attorneys and the law firms where they work for representing Kemble in his earlier lawsuit against Cabot, which Kemble withdrew a few months after his cancer diagnosis (Kemble’s attorneys have cited unspecified “new information” in explaining the decision to drop the case). Kemble’s supporters say they fear that by including Kemble’s attorneys in the lawsuit, Cabot is trying to make it harder for those harmed by powerful companies to find representation.
On December 21, 2017, Susquehanna County Judge Jason J. Legg allowed Cabot’s claims against the attorneys to go forward, while admonishing Cabot for breaking Pennsylvania’s Rules of Civil Procedure by claiming $5 million in damages, even though the rules forbade Cabot to name a specific figure higher than $50,000 in their complaint. The judge noted that the claiming damages of $5 million “may have been designed to attract media attention” and “likely” served no legitimate legal purpose.
To Kemble, the lesson is clear. “This is just a way to shut the people up of the county and of the state, and I just don’t think it’s right,” Kemble said, according to NPR‘s State Impact. “We the people have the right to talk.”