Trinity East, Staunch Defender of Truth and Above-Board Dealing, Threatens to Sue an Environmental Group

So Trinity East, the gas drilling company that did a secret deal with the Dallas city manager to drill on city-owned parkland, is threatening to sue an environmental group because the group demanded more transparency about previous drilling operations.

The drilling company has threatened to sue the Texas Campaign for the Environment for making "demonstrably false" statements about a 2008 drilling operation at the University of Dallas in which a ground-water protection system cracked up and failed. The environmental group said the cracking up of the groundwater protection system could have polluted the groundwater.

The environmentalists say the state agency in charge of checking to see if the groundwater got polluted never came up with anything to show they had even looked at it, nor did Trinity East. So they say maybe it did. Trinity East's argument seems to be that the environmentalists shouldn't be allowed to say it could have happened if nobody has ever provided proof that it did or did not happen.

Wow. Maybe we'd all better count this out, so we won't all wind up in court. If we play by the Trinity East's rules of free speech and fair debate, it was OK, then, for Trinity East to sign a secret deal five years ago with City Manager Mary Suhm, for gas drilling on parkland, then hint at its existence in a kind of too-cute threatening way in a Q&A interview with the Observer, but refuse to come clean on its existence, possibly because keeping it a secret would maintain their leverage over Suhm. Show a little, hide a lot. Got it.

It was also OK for Trinity East to state in the same interview that current law allowed drilling on parkland, which was not true. Check.

It was perfectly within the rules of free speech for Trinity East representatives to tell a certain all-ears Observer columnist that the company might use its under-the-table deal with Suhm to sue the socks off the city if the company didn't get its way, so they better get their way. All right, got that, too.

But when the Texas Campaign for the Environment suggested Trinity East had not been forthcoming about possible damage to the water table from one of its drilling operations, that was just off the charts impermissible slanderous libelous defamatory illegal crazy-talk, and Trinity East was going to sue their socks off, too.

Uh. Not sure I do get it.

Here's my thinking. You wander into City Hall and you want something. Hey. What is City Hall? It's a big building that exists ... it is only there ... the only reason it was ever built, in fact, was so that we would have a place to debate public issues freely and openly. Can you be all fakey nudge-nudge wink-wink about secret deals that you're going to hint at but not quite fully disclose? Absolutely. This is America. We are proud of our right to be tricky in public.

But can you say stuff that's just not true, like current law allows drilling on parkland when current law does not allow drilling on parkland? Sure. Go for it. It's public debate. The public can take it. A little bit of deception goes with the territory.

In other words, in the game of City Hall poker, is it OK to deliberately let the guy across the table see your ace but hide the rest of your crap hand and then act all confident and like you're about to clean him out so you can bluff him out of raising the bet on you? Of course! Feel free! That's how we do it in the grand arena of free speech in this country.

But here's the thing, mate. If the people on the other side of the table point out that you had a groundwater protection system that crapped out on you, and they point out that neither you nor the state agency over this stuff has ever ponied up a definitive report on it, and they suggest that maybe possibly the groundwater got polluted because your system crapped out, that is within the same rules of public debate by which you have been playing all along. In fact it's probably a little closer within the rules than you yourself have been.

So the deal is this: You can't walk into City Hall, take advantage of the public nature of the debate to say all kinds of stuff you yourself might well have been sued for in an entirely private matter, and then threaten to destroy a citizen group because they exercise the same right of speech you yourself have been relying on from the beginning.

Sure, we know you're an oil and gas company, and you can put your hands on way more lawyer money than the little rag-tags in the environmental group. But you just can't go around doing whatever you want and then threaten to ruin the little people for the same thing.

Put it a simpler way. In the game of City Hall, there are four rules. 1) Everybody can play. 2) Keep your eyes peeled and your catcher's mask on. 3) It's OK to be partial ass-holes. 4) Not total.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze