Following nationwide protests against pipelines, industry-backed legislation has been passed to crack down on protestors. 17 states have had bills criminalizing protests at pipelines with 7 states having passed bills. The situation escalated when Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao proposed a change to penalties at the national level.
In a joint document with Greenpeace, Defending Rights and Dissent outlined the proposed changes to the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2019, “The proposal would amend 49 U.S. Code § 60123(b) by replacing “damaging or destroying” with“damaging, destroying, vandalizing, tampering with, impeding the operation of, disrupting the operation of, or inhibiting the operation of” an interstate pipeline facility. It would also expand the scope of the provision to include not only operational facilities but those “under construction.””
The broadness of this change would criminalize peaceful protests, many of which have the intent of creating a non-violent disruption through direct action like blocking the entrance to a work area. The phrase “under construction” also broadens the timeframe for penalties. In perhaps the most widely known example of pipeline protest, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 attempted to stop the construction of the pipeline. Under the proposed language, those activists would have been at more risk for arrest and longer jail times.
The chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has rebuked the proposed changes from the Trump Administration, delivering the following remarks, “[I] have no intention of allowing a pipeline safety bill to be used as a vehicle for stifling legitimate dissent and protest. That provision is dead on arrival as far as I’m concerned.” This is promising news for environmental activists and those who support our right to protest, but at the state level we’ve seen a proliferation of damaging laws that need to be resisted as well.
A South Dakota bill was signed by the governor in 2019 and would criminalize protesting of pipelines. It was passed in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests and the current Keystone XL Pipeline protests. Notably the law refers to “riot boosters” a term that appears made up. The bill is being challenged in court as unconstitutional.
A similar bill was passed in Louisiana last year in response to protests over the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Activists have been charged for trespassing on land that the pipeline owning company had intended on appropriating through eminent domain. This is a practice that has repeated itself throughout the country. In both Virginia and Texas landowners have challenged Oil and Gas companies rights to use eminent domain to buy their land. There are now legal challenges from civil rights groups for the Louisiana law.
The bills that have appeared around the country are often modeled after legislation from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-corporation right-wing group. Some of the bills create harsh penalties, fining individuals $500,000, or sentencing people to jail for anywhere between 6 to 20 years. This perhaps makes sense for corporations who seek profit over everything else and states that want to protect those corporations. North Dakota, for example, spent 38 million dollars on police during the DAPL protests in an effort to intensely scrutinize the protests.. Still, these bills show a fierce backlash to the wave of pipeline protests against environmental degradation.