Cullen Lobe's troubles didn't end when he was arrested on two criminal charges for protesting a massive fracking site near Bella Romero Academy, a fourth-through-eighth-grade middle school in Greeley, on March 8. The 23-year-old Colorado State University student is now the target of a civil suit by the oil and gas company that is developing the site.
Lobe is being sued by Denver-based Extraction Oil and Gas for trespassing and intentional interference with a contract after he locked himself to a bulldozer at the drilling site. The company is seeking to ban Lobe and other protesters who attended the anti-fracking protest from all of its properties in the state and wants yet-to-be-disclosed monetary damages. A trial date has not yet been set.
Now, Lobe is facing both criminal and civil lawsuits related to the anti-fracking protest.
"Obviously, [Extraction Oil and Gas] doesn't need money. They're not going to get money from me; I don't have any," Lobe says "At this point, it just seems like a massive attack on our First Amendment, and [like] harassment. They're trying to really shake up this community and this movement.”
The protest was live-streamed to Facebook.
Lobe is two semesters from graduating with specializations in journalism and environmental affairs at CSU. After protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, Lobe says, his eyes were opened to the power that corporations and governments have to silence dissent and put profit before community health and safety, especially of minorities. So when Lobe caught wind of Extraction Oil and Gas's fracking operation next door to the playground at Bella Romero Academy, which serves predominantly low-income and minority students, he decided to help mobilize local activists to push back against what he calls environmental racism.
"I see this everywhere. These corporations, they come into these communities, and they destroy these communities. They have all the money and power," Lobe says. "Now it's here at home, and there's no part of my body that says I can sit back and watch this happen.”
Prior to Extraction Oil and Gas's suit, Lobe could have accepted a plea deal on the criminal charges and moved on with his life. Now he's forced to fight both lawsuits because pleading guilty to the criminal charges could be used against him by Extraction Oil and Gas in the civil lawsuit, where they're pushing for monetary damages.
The civil lawsuit doesn't just target Lobe. Extraction Oil and Gas filed the suit against unidentified protesters "John and Jane Does 1-20," who the company says are part of the Suede Light Brigade, a loose group of anti-fracking activists in northern Colorado. It's unclear exactly how the company will go about identifying the protesters.
Jason Flores-Williams, the attorney representing Lobe in both civil and criminal court, says that by suing "John and Jane Does," the company could uncover any individual remotely involved in resisting the development near Bella Romero Academy or anti-fracking operations in the area. By identifying the network of dissidents, Flores-Williams says, Extraction Oil and Gas could use the information to connect them to Lobe's lawsuit or file separate civil lawsuits in an effort to nip the growing dissent in the bud.
“This lawsuit is a direct assault on the First Amendment in a time when First Amendment rights have never been more important to our democracy," Flores-Williams says, adding that free speech isn't the only First Amendment consideration in a case like this. "The main one that [the lawsuit] chills is the right of association, which is a part of the First Amendment."
Flores-Williams says that if a judge accepts the company's legal argument, it could open the doors to Extraction prying into all communications to uncover these "John and Jane Does" while uncovering the network of local anti-fracking resistance.
"Now those people are going to be listed [on the lawsuit]." Flores-Williams says. "They're going to be going after emails, Facebook accounts, social media accounts, group attendance lists" if a judge allows the legal argument.
Four other protesters were given criminal citations by the Weld County Sheriff's Department for trespassing on the Extraction Oil and Gas drilling site. A GoFundMe campaign with a $5,000 goal was created the day of the protests to pay for fines associated with their citations and for legal expenses, including Lobe's. To date, the campaign has raised $2,711.
Extraction Oil and Gas, however, says that the protesters didn't go through the proper legal channels to get permitting for their protest and instead chose to break the law by trespassing on its property.
The company calls the protesters "extremists" whose actions can't be tolerated.
“Last week, we filed injunctions against some individuals who were involved in trespassing on one of our locations while operations were under way. We wish to make it clear that we cannot tolerate extremist or illegal acts committed by people who would endanger their own lives and the lives of our coworkers," the company said in a statement. "In Colorado, there is a lawful process for our political views to be heard through permitted and peaceful protest. However, trespassing and tampering with oil and gas equipment are criminal acts that could cause serious injury, and are not responsible ways to communicate misguided political statements."
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Extraction is facing significant community pushback in Broomfield on six drilling sites totaling 84 wells, all of which are about a quarter-mile from homes. Its Broomfield permits are pending with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the city has asked COGCC to leave those permits pending until the company comes into compliance with local regulations, like outlining in detail its emergency management plan.
Broomfield has taken a hard line with the operator, particularly after an explosion on its Windsor drilling site in December, which severely burned a field worker. In a preliminary report released in February, the company still could not identify the exact cause of the explosion.
For his part, Lobe says, "I'm not some crazy person. I'm just a student trying to do something, trying to stand up against corporate greed and destruction."