Texas Legislators Want To Make Pipeline Protesting A Third-Degree Felony With Sentences Of Up To 10 Years

Protesting the Keystone pipeline in Washington. Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com

State legislators in Texas have passed a bill that would put the criminal repercussions of pipeline protesting on par with those of drive-by shooting or indecent exposure to a minor.

If signed into law, anyone who is found guilty of delaying construction or interrupting the service of an oil or natural gas pipeline may be charged with a third-degree felony. That means two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

For the record, that is more than you would get for burglary or criminally negligent homicide. It is equivalent to stalking, assault when intoxicated, and indecent exposure to a child. Drive-by shooters who miss their target would also be considered third-degree felons.

The move has been cheered on by members of the Texas Oil & Gas Association. "The State of Texas is one step closer to providing private property owners and businesses that operate critical infrastructure facilities and their employees greater protections against intentional damage, delays, and stoppages caused by illegal activity," President Todd Staples said in a statement.

Meanwhile, civil rights and environmental groups have been more critical of the bill, saying it threatens Americans' right to free speech as protected under the First Amendment. 

"The bill was never about safety and security," Cyrus Reed, the interim director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, told Bloomberg in an email. "It was about silencing protesters trying to protect their water and land."

The bill may have made its through the state's House and Senate but is yet to be signed into law. For that, it needs Governor Greg Abbott's signature. Still, it is just one of several similar bills grappling their way through state legislatures – if they haven't already passed. One in Illinois would harshen sentences for those accused of entering or causing damage to “critical infrastructure facilities", which (as the Natural Resource Defense Council points out) could extend to any facility used to extract, store, process, transport, or burn fossil fuels. Another in Oklahoma could land you a $100,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence.

That law – and another in South Dakota – does not only apply to people caught protesting on the ground, but anyone thought to be "riot boosting". That, the Sierra Club says, could include directing, advising, encouraging, or soliciting those who are participating. 

As Grist reports, many of these bills appear to be based on model legislation pushed by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council to increase the penalties of those charged with property damage to fossil fuel facilities. What's more, they may be entirely pointless. Trespass and damage to private property are already illegal. These just make the punishments more severe.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are already challenging the laws by taking them to court. Supporters of the laws, like South Dakota's Governor Kristi Noem, claim they will protect "economic development" from protestors, while others say this is a freedom of speech issue that extends well beyond the pipeline protests.

"I think this is a long-term civil liberties and civil rights issue," Courtney Bowie, legal director for the ACLU South Dakota, told the Sierra Club. "The folks that are protesting these pipelines, whether you agree with them or not, they have a right to air their grievances, to raise these issues." 

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