The Goliath of the wind-energy business is suing David. The defendant is Esther Wrightman, an activist and mother of two from the tiny town of Kerwood, Ontario, which sits roughly halfway between Detroit and Toronto.
Wrightman, 32, has angered the Florida-based NextEra Energy (market capitalization: $32 billion) by starting a couple of bare-bones websites, ontariowindresistance.org and mlwindaction.org, as well as a YouTube channel, which she uses to lampoon the company. In its lawsuit, filed on May 1, NextEra claims that Wrightman has misused its logo and libeled the company by calling it “NexTerror” and “NextError.” And while the company doesn’t specify the amount of damages it seeks from Wrightman, it says that it will donate any proceeds from the litigation to United Way.
NextEra owns some 10,000 megawatts of wind-generation capacity, or about one-sixth of all U.S. capacity. And the company is aggressively developing six new wind projects in Canada, one of which, the Adelaide Wind Energy Centre, aims to put 38 turbines just north of Wrightman’s home. (You can see her property and the surrounding land by going here.)
NextEra’s filing against Wrightman is a textbook case of a SLAPP suit, a strategic lawsuit against public participation. And it’s a particularly loathsome one as NextEra filed it in Ontario, the epicenter of the backlash against the encroaching sprawl of the 150-meter-high, noise-producing, bird-and-bat-killing, subsidy-dependent wind-energy sector.
Making it yet more loathsome: The suit was filed just before the Ontario legislature began considering a bill that would limit SLAPP suits. SLAPP suits have been common — and largely successful — in recent years in several Canadian provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia. Limits are needed, says Ontario’s attorney general, John Gerretsen, because SLAPPs have a “chilling effect” on public debate. Nearly 30 U.S. states have enacted laws to prevent SLAPPs.
Ontario is home to more than 50 active anti-wind-energy groups. Numerous towns in the province have passed regulations to prevent the construction of turbines in their areas. Last year, Health Canada said it would conduct a study into the health effects of the infrasound and low-frequency noise generated by wind turbines.
Ontario currently has about 1,500 megawatts of installed capacity. By early 2014, that number is expected to nearly triple, to some 4,300 megawatts. NextEra alone has plans to develop 600 megawatts of wind in Ontario, according to its spokesman Steve Stengel.
Peter D. Kennedy, an attorney based in Austin, Texas, whose practice focuses on technology and libel law, says NextEra’s suit is an attempt to silence Wrightman. “Besides being almost impossible to win,” he told me, “these kinds of lawsuits are almost never a good idea. They turn critics into martyrs and make the company look like a bully.” Like Americans, Canadians have the right to, as Kennedy puts it, “express their opinions in unpleasant ways, and they can use parody in their criticism.”
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of NextEra’s lawsuit is its claim that Wrightman — by merely opposing its wind projects — is a “competitor insofar as she is seeking donations in order to divert business from NextEra to other energy-producing businesses in Ontario.”
Just for a moment, let’s consider the outrage that might be heard from the Sierra Club or Greenpeace if an oil and gas company were to file a similarly specious lawsuit against one of the many activists who oppose drilling and/or hydraulic fracturing. What’s to prevent Shell or Chevron from suing Yoko Ono? She’s a leading critic of hydraulic fracturing. On the logic of NextEra’s lawsuit, therefore, she has become a “competitor” to Shell and Chevron thanks to her promotion of renewable energy. Or what if Devon Energy sued Josh Fox, the poseur/auteur behind the film Gasland, which contains numerous false statements about oil and gas production?