Since March, while media attention has largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic, three states have passed bills that increase punishments against people who protest oil and gas development and designate oil and gas facilities as critical infrastructure. These bills, signed into law in Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia, all aim to discourage protesters from interfering with these facilities and pipelines by leveling fines and felony charges against them.
The Kentucky law, signed by the governor in March, states that tampering with a pipeline to make its operations “harmful or dangerous” is a felony. The first of two laws ratified by South Dakota makes “substantial interruption or impairment” of oil and gas facilities a felony charge. The second established the word “riot” to mean “any intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons, acting together and without authority of law, to cause any injury to any person or any damage to property” and denotes “incitement to riot” as a felony offense.
West Virginia’s March law levels fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison for those who vandalize or impede the operations of gas and oil facilities causing “damages” totaling $2,500 or more. The law also imposes fines of up to $20,000 on anyone who conspires with people vandalizing or impeding operation.
“This legislation is aimed at chilling protest activity,” the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union wrote in an online statement describing their opposition to the bill.
In Ohio, a bill passed by the State Senate in May would punish trespassing and property damage to critical infrastructure as a felony, with up to three years in prison. The bill is currently under review in a State House committee.
A similar law went into effect in Tennessee in May 2019 and makes interrupting or interfering with oil and gas facilities a felony. It also makes it a legal offense for a person or group to aid others in interrupting or interfering with these sites.
While lawmakers have framed these bills as necessary for public safety, critics argue the intention is to escalate criminal penalties for nonviolent protest.
“These laws do nothing new to protect communities,” Connor Gibson, a researcher for Greenpeace USA, told the Huffington Post. “Instead they seek to crack down on the sort of nonviolent civil disobedience that has shaped much of our nation’s greatest political and social victories.”
— By Finn Halloran