Inside a leadership ‘implosion’ at Greenpeace

By Robin Bravender | 07/01/2024 01:44 PM EDT

A leadership struggle within the iconic green group comes as the organization grapples with an oil company’s high-stakes lawsuit. 

Ebony Twilley Martin

Ebony Twilley Martin, executive director of Greenpeace USA, speaks Sept. 21, 2023, in New York City. Bennett Raglin/AFP via Getty Images for The New York Times

Greenpeace USA is in the throes of a divisive leadership struggle.

Ebony Twilley Martin, Greenpeace USA’s executive director, has been on leave from the organization for the past two weeks, the group’s board told staff Thursday during a meeting. Her sudden absence has sparked frustration within the ranks at Greenpeace and among her international counterparts who accused the Greenpeace USA board of sidelining its leader.

“It’s a leadership breakdown basically. A full-on implosion,” said one Greenpeace staffer who was granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the group’s internal dynamics.


Ongoing internal strife at one of the world’s best-known environmental groups has led to uncertainty about who’s leading the organization and a complaint to the board from leaders of Greenpeace USA’s international affiliates.

The turbulence comes just over a year after Greenpeace USA announced in April 2023 that Twilley Martin would take the reins as the green group’s first Black woman executive director — a move the group heralded as a “historic first” among major national environmental organizations.

Twilley Martin’s allies say her absence is due to a power struggle fueled by internal divisions over an expensive lawsuit filed against the organization by an oil company.

In a staff call Thursday, employees were informed that Twilley Martin has been on leave since June 13.

Staff were told on the call to offer a “one-liner” to external parties about Twilley Martin’s absence. “No changes in leadership have been made at Greenpeace U.S. as of now,” said Kad Smith, a Greenpeace Fund board member, in an audio recording obtained by E&E News.

In response to a request for comment from E&E News, the boards of Greenpeace Fund and Greenpeace Inc. — the international organization’s two U.S.-based groups — echoed that statement.

“No changes to leadership have been made at Greenpeace entities based in the US,” the groups said in a statement attributed to their boards. “Both the Fund and Inc. boards remain committed to the organization’s mission to fight against unjust social, environmental, and economic systems.”

Asked on the call whether Twilley Martin could speak to staff while on leave, Smith replied that the board had asked her not to do any “official Greenpeace US operations” while on leave. “She’s not operating on behalf of Greenpeace as the executive director at this time, while on approved leave,” Smith said.

Twilley Martin declined to comment for this story.

‘Sudden absence’

Her absence from a recent meeting of international Greenpeace leaders in Spain prompted a reproachful letter to the U.S.-based Greenpeace board members.

“This letter is to express our concern with this sudden absence of Ebony in the [executive directors’ meeting] and to make abundantly clear that she has the full and deep respect of our community,” 23 international Greenpeace executive directors wrote to the boards of Greenpeace USA and the Greenpeace Fund in the letter dated June 21.

“While we cannot of course be aware of the full range of circumstances at play here, we also cannot envisage what possible situation would warrant a board intervention” to prevent an executive director from attending an international executive directors’ meeting, they wrote.

“Outside of the most exceptional circumstances, this appears to us, with our collective leadership, as an entirely unjustified act on behalf of a Board to prevent an [executive director] from doing their job.”

They said it was with “great surprise and grave concern” that they found out Twilley Martin wouldn’t be attending their meeting “without any real explanation, or acknowledgment of the depth of impact that her absence would have on our EDs community.”

The lawsuit roiling Greenpeace

A high-stakes legal fight against an oil company has fueled the rift between Twilley Martin and other leaders within the organization, said Willem van Rijn, who served as Greenpeace USA’s chief operating officer until April 2024.

The relationship between Twilley Martin and the board “really soured” in a short period of time over the group’s approach to a possible settlement in a case in which Energy Transfer Partners is suing Greenpeace USA in a North Dakota court over protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Without addressing the legal merits of the case, van Rijn recalled, “there was a discussion and an opening for settlement.”

Twilley Martin “advocated a way in which the organization would settle for a minor amount of money so that we could fight another day,” van Rijn said. She informed the boards of her “ideas were about settlement, where the sensitivities were, and where her red lines were to go forward,” van Rijn said.

“And as it happened, the board not only disagreed, the board vehemently disagreed with the direction she was willing to take.”

The board then conducted what van Rijn called “serious overreach” to “muzzle” its leader — effectively telling the senior management team that Twilley Martin was no longer responsible for “anything related to this legal case,” van Rijn said.

‘A matter of survival’

This lawsuit for nearly $300 million accusing Greenpeace of conspiring to halt the Dakota Access oil pipeline is a huge deal for the group.

“This case is a matter of survival for the organization,” van Rijn said. “It’s not just another lawsuit.”

The Greenpeace USA boards declined to comment on internal talks surrounding the lawsuit. “With respect to anything concerning active litigation, the Boards will not comment on confidential discussions,” they said in a statement.

A loss in that case, Greenpeace says on its website, “could threaten to put Greenpeace on the sidelines of the fight for climate justice right at the moment when we need to fight even harder for a green and peaceful future.”

And the case could resonate beyond just Greenpeace, the group says. “This trial is testing out dangerous legal tactics that, if successful, could be widely applied against protesters, and indeed, anyone who speaks out or criticizes a deep-pocketed corporation.”

The organization says they view it as “our duty to fight this lawsuit not just for ourselves, but for future activists who might be similarly targeted.”

Van Rijn said Twilley Martin acted “completely in agreement” with the group’s external legal advisers.

A person close to Twilley Martin largely confirmed that van Rijn’s description of events was accurate and added that “Ebony was in contact with the Board throughout the negotiation process, and the Board itself later negotiated a statement that was very similar to the one Ebony had negotiated.” That person was granted anonymity to discuss internal operations.

Inside Greenpeace USA, staff are frustrated as they await news about next steps, said the employee who was granted anonymity.

The group’s leadership told staff on Thursday’s call they “did not know how long her leave would be — they didn’t have any information about that,” that employee said. “I think people felt they were being lied to,” that person said.