How Oil Pipeline Protest Laws Are Obliterating Free Speech

Stephanie Michelle

Protesters are now treated as “terrorists”

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

When thousands of intrepid activists peacefully gathered at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in 2016, many of them didn’t expect to face such a violent response.

Although these protesters were unarmed, dozens were mistreated by guards who used flash-bang grenades, water cannons, pepper spray, violent guard dogs, and strip searches to intimidate them.

They assembled to protect the reservation’s burial grounds and access to clean water from the threat of Energy Transfer Partners, which had been approved to construct the pipeline from western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing under the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

In response to the recurring protests throughout 2016, President Obama halted the construction of the pipeline in December of 2016, the final month of his term. However, shortly after his inauguration, President Trump reversed Obama’s legislation and advanced the pipeline’s construction, and at least five protesters were incarcerated for exercising their first amendment rights.

Since Trump’s approval of DAPL, the GOP has unleashed an unprecedented wave of legislation to further undermine the first amendment rights of activists by criminalizing efforts to organize against the construction of oil pipelines.

In 2017, Oklahoma was the first state to pass such a law, intending to protect fossil-fuel corporations from the potential threat of protesters impeding their profits. Since Oklahoma’s economy is heavily dependent on the fossil-fuel industry, legislators desperately sought to ensure that protests like those at Standing Rock will never take place there.

The new 2017 legislation stipulates that entering pipeline property to “impede or inhibit operations of the facility” is a felony that carries a minimum fine of $10,000. The law also states that those who are successful in doing so will face either 10 years in jail or a hefty fine of $100,000.

Over the past several years, four other states — namely North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana, and Iowa — have also enacted legislation that further criminalizes protesters who attempt to interfere with oil pipeline construction. As Mother Jones has reported, these laws apply “harsh penalties for protesting so-called ‘critical infrastructure’ — -facilities such as pipelines, compressor stations, refineries, and wastewater treatment plants.”

And these laws are being strictly enforced: In Louisiana, 16 people have already been arrested for violating one such law. Even more frighteningly, many of these states’ laws criminalize the mere act of supporting the planning of such protests.

For example, Oklahoma’s recent law states that “anyone who compensates, remunerates or provides consideration to someone who causes damage while trespassing” critical infrastructure property will be considered liable for the damage caused and charged accordingly. Additionally, similar legislation has been proposed in at least seven other states.

Since these laws conveniently serve the interests of fossil-fuel corporations, it’s no surprise many fossil-fuel companies have praised them.

The president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association has expressed that Texas’s bill criminalizing pipeline protests is “badly needed because, unfortunately, we have seen too many examples of illegal activity that is costly to Texas businesses and local governments and puts employees of these businesses in danger.”

Unfortunately, this concern about endangering communities is most likely not genuine, since it’s clear pipelines present grave threats to local communities.

For this reason, the construction of oil pipelines often sparks immense opposition from local communities. Residents commonly fear the pipelines will leak and poison the local water supply, and these fears aren’t unwarranted: One Wall Street Journal review discovered that between 2010 and 2013, 1,400 pipeline spills and accidents occurred in the U.S.

And not surprisingly, four in five of these accidents were initially reported by local residents, as opposed to the companies that built them. Additionally, when companies building new pipelines are granted the power of eminent domain over the construction area (as they often are), they’re effectively given carte blanche to destroy the property of local residents and landowners, rendering countless local residents homeless.

For example, Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway pipeline project in West Texas threatens to displace longtime residents from their homes. And local residents who aren’t at risk of being displaced still face concerns about the likely possibility that the pipeline could contaminate the groundwater near Hill County aquifers. This could potentially harm more than one million people, as these aquifers provide 80% of San Antonio’s drinking water.

It’s no coincidence that much of the pipeline protest legislation across the country is eerily similar. Many of these bills are based on model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative legislators and oil industry lobbyists.

As Grist has reported, ALEC exerts its influence by amassing corporate money and providing “ready-made legislation for lobbyists and lawmakers.” In addition, Grist continues, “…it has been behind the effort to exempt Big Oil from having to disclose chemicals in fracking fluids and pushed so-called ag-gag laws, which stymie undercover investigations of agricultural operations.”

If these laws continue to be implemented around the country, increasing numbers of climate activists will become too afraid to oppose destructive “critical infrastructure” in even the most non-violent manner. And beyond stripping them of their first amendment rights, this could result in environmental devastation and deadly impacts on entire communities.

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Writer, editor, and leftist activist with writing in The Correspondent, Wear Your Voice, Adios Barbie, etc. Endlessly fascinated by the complexities of human minds and cultures. Currently completing my MA in Anthropology.


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