Energy firm sues environmentalist for libel over online posting

An energy company sued a Paonia environmental consultant, accusing him of libel for comments made about a federal oil and gas lease bid collusion case the company ended up settling.

Pete Kolbenschlag says the suit brought by SG Interests against him is unfounded and an attempt to silence him. He has raised more than $10,000 from more than 150 donors in just four days in an ongoing crowd-funding effort to pay for his defense.

SG Interests sued Kolbenschlag Feb. 21 in district court in Delta County over a comment he posted on the Glenwood Springs Post Independent website about a Nov. 28 article in that newspaper. The article said SGI planned to sue the federal government over the Bureau of Land Management’s cancellation of 18 SGI leases in the Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs, based on evidence of alleged collusion between the Obama administration and environmentalists to reach a predetermined political conclusion.

SGI proceeded with suing over the lease cancellations on Feb. 10.

The company says Kolbenschlag falsely stated in response to the Nov. 28 article that while SGI alleges collusion, “let us recall that it, SGI, was actually fined for colluding … to rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers.”

Kolbenschlag’s comments were a reference to allegations by the Justice Department that SGI and Gunnison Energy Corp. colluded in acquiring four leases covering some 3,500 acres in the Ragged Mountain area of Delta and Gunnison counties. The companies agreed in 2013 to pay a combined amount of more than $1 million to settle a civil antitrust action and alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the case. Neither company admitted wrongdoing.

The companies had agreed in 2005 to have only SGI bid on the leases, and to then have it assign an interest in them to Gunnison Energy. At the time of the legal case, Gunnison Energy defended the arrangement as legal, and a federal judge rejected a settlement for a lower amount, citing the company’s “unrepentant arrogance.”

In its suit against Kolbenschlag, SGI said his statement “is contrary to the true facts and reasonable people reading the assertion would be likely to think less favorably about SGI than they would if they knew the true facts.”

An attorney representing SGI in the libel suit and SGI official Robbie Guinn declined to comment on it Monday.

Said Kolbenschlag, “I believe the substance of the complaint is without merit and the lawsuit is frivolous.”

He has retained Steven Zansberg, a Denver attorney who works in media-related law, and they plan to ask for the suit to be dismissed.

The suit asks for damages “in an amount to be proven at trial,” and for costs and attorney fees.

Kolbenschlag has launched a legal defense fundraising effort at http://www.generosity.com. He says on the website that he’s the target of what’s known as a SLAPP suit, which stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation, and which Kolbenschlag says is used by corporations to try to silence individuals.

“Your contribution of any amount is most appreciated. A win for me is a win for activism, and a black eye for the questionable tactics of suing citizens for speaking out,” he said in his fundraising appeal.


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