Judge denies dismissal of SG Interests libel lawsuit over Thompson Divide online comment
December 10, 2017
A judge has denied a motion to dismiss a libel suit that energy company SG Interests has brought against a Paonia environmental activist.
Pete Kolbenschlag, who has been active in fighting energy development in the North Fork Valley, posted a Facebook comment to a Post Independent story on SG Interests early this year after some big news came out about their nearby natural gas leases.
SG Interests is a Texas-based oil and gas company that held the majority of the leases on the Thompson Divide, which the BLM announced in November 2016 that it was cancelling.
Following the BLM's decision, SG Interests said it would take the matter to federal court to recover lost profits. The company alleged that the Obama administration had colluded with environmental interests to reach a "predetermined political decision" on the bulk cancellation of leases.
Commenting to the Post Independent's coverage of that announcement, Kolbenschlag wrote, "While SGI alleges 'collusion' let us recall that it, SGI, was actually fined for colluding (with Gunnison Energy Corporation) to rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers. Yes, these two companies owned by billionaires thought it appropriate to pad their portfolios at the expense of you and I and every other hard-working American."
That comment prompted the energy company to file a libel lawsuit against Kolbenschlag in February.
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In February 2012, the Department of Justice announced a settlement with SG Interests and Gunnison Energy Corp., which required the companies to pay $550,000 for "antitrust and False Claims Act violations." A federal judge later rejected the settlement, then approved a new settlement of $1 million. The companies did not admit any wrongdoing as a part of the settlement.
SG Interests' complaint claims that Kolbenschlag's statement that these companies were fined for colluding to rig bid prices is "contrary to the true facts and reasonable people reading the assertion would be likely to think significantly less favorably about SGI than they would if they knew the true facts."
"Kolbenschlag's assertion that SGI was fined for collusion and bid rigging caused SGI actual damages, including, but not limited to, impairment of SGI's reputation," the complaint reads.
However, Kolbenschlag say that the lawsuit is "frivolous and without merit," and moreover that he is being sued for making an "innocuous online comment" that others had already published in the media. SG Interests' lawsuit is a "textbook tactic employed by those that want to stifle civic engagement with a SLAPP suit [strategic lawsuit against public participation]: bury the defendant in legal filings and costly actions," he wrote in a statement.
Rather than granting Kolbenschlag's motion to dismiss the case against him, the judge is considering the case for summary judgement, says Kolbenschlag.
"Although the timeline set forth by the judge for briefing gives us the next opportunity to respond, SG Interests immediately filed a premature motion to force discovery, which is a time-consuming, invasive and costly process," Kolbenschlag wrote in a statement.
"So, I am forced to again raise support to defend myself and to defend free speech and community activism in the face of a powerful company that has its own interest in mind."
Kolbenschlag's defense is trying to avoid having to produce that discovery, by alleging that SG Interests has not made a valid libel claim.
"Most of my advocacy in the North Fork involves oil and gas development and helping the valley determine our own future – building what we want to create here for our homes, farms and businesses. I follow issues that impact the community like any responsible community member, and sometimes I comment online – what I am being sued for. I'm proud of my efforts, and I stand by them."
The Post Independent did not hear back from SG Interests' attorney, who has in the past declined to comment on the case.