Oil Companies Persuade States To Make Pipeline Protests a Felony

Dakota Access protesters in February 2017.

After protesters disrupted construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota by chaining themselves to construction equipment and pitching tents along the route, oil and chemical companies found a way to keep it from happening again.

They made it a crime.

The companies, including Koch Industries, Marathon Petroleum, and Energy Transfer Partners—whose Dakota Access project in North Dakota was targeted 3 years ago—lobbied state legislatures to effectively outlaw demonstrations near pipelines, chemical plants, and other infrastructure. Nine states have gone along so far, in some cases classifying the activities as felonies. More are considering measures.

The lobbying campaign, documented in state disclosures and other records reviewed by Bloomberg News, has raised concerns about corporate influence muzzling free speech.

“Oil refiners, especially Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum, orchestrated this unholy alliance of oil, gas, chemical, and electric utility companies to crush resistance to polluting industries,” said Connor Gibson, an investigator with Greenpeace who has tracked the efforts.

Industry representatives portray their efforts as a necessary counter to the increasingly aggressive tactics of activists, which include videotaping confrontations with police for posting on social media.

“There is nothing more important to the fuel and petrochemical industries than the safety of our people, our communities and our facilities—and willful, disruptive and dangerous interference with critical infrastructure puts that safety at risk,” the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) said in a statement. “Our advocacy is intended to protect public safety and private property, not chill First Amendment rights, which don’t entitle a person to destroy property or create public hazards.”

Bills criminalizing trespassing near oil pipelines, gas processing equipment, and other designated “critical infrastructure” passed this year in Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas—building on similar measures previously enacted in Oklahoma and other states. Supporters are now pushing to create infrastructure protest laws in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Their template is model legislation endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative group backed by the Charles Koch Institute, which encourages state lawmakers to advance ready-made bills on topics ranging from gun rights to tort reform.

The new state laws vary but generally create a new, more serious category of trespassing when it’s done near energy infrastructure and interferes with construction, carrying felony prison sentences of as much as 5 years and fines of as much as $10,000. In some cases, it can include activists who have permission from landowners to mount protests in the fields and trees near critical energy infrastructure. Some states have extended penalties to organizations found to have “conspired” in the activity.

The state efforts respond to a wave of activism by environmentalists opposed to oil, gas, and coal, because burning those fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change. The activists increasingly are focused on fighting the infrastructure needed to transport and process those fossil fuels.

The AFPM, and one of its top members, Marathon Petroleum, spearheaded efforts to get ALEC to support the model legislation in 2017, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing internal strategy.

Read the full story here.

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