Security Threats Hit Top Federal Regulators, Examples In West Give Pause
Top federal government officials are now facing confrontations and threats similar to what has been seen at the state and local level over the past several years, reports from the country’s top environmental regulatory agency revealed last week. Meanwhile, Members of Congress have asked the Department of Justice if current laws sufficiently protect the public and energy infrastructure from threatening environmental activists.
“[Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt] was approached in the airport numerous times, to the point of profanities being yelled at him and so forth,” Henry Barnet, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, told Politico.
“The team leader felt that he was being placed in a situation where he was unsafe on the flight,” said Barnet.
The threats were so significant, according to Barnet, that the agency felt the need for greater safety measures.
“We felt that based on the recommendation from the team leader, the special agent in charge, that it would be better suited to have him in business or first class, away from close proximity from those individuals who were approaching him and being extremely rude, using profanities and potential for altercations and so forth,” he continued.
Safety concerns for federal employees mirror similar episodes in the West for government officials and oil and gas employees. Those concerns cross party and even ideological lines.
Governor John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) has faced activists’ confrontations on numerous occasions.
In August 2016, Hickenlooper’s book talk at a church in Boulder, Colorado was hijacked by anti-fracking protesters, forcing the governor to skip his initial remarks. He later delivered comments to the raucous crowd, joined by two security guards “in close proximity,” with an additional four law enforcement officials at the First Congregational Church.
Attendees told the local paper they found the protesters’ actions disrespectful to both Hickenlooper and the others in attendance, telling the Boulder Daily Camera the disruptions were “counterproductive,” and that they felt “Ripped off.” They were frustrated by the child-like behavior and an unwillingness to entertain opposing viewpoints.
Hickenlooper’s accommodating stance on oil and gas issues, compared to other members of his party, has raised the ire of Colorado’s activists, some who still feel betrayed by the governor’s 11th hour grand bargain in 2014 to remove anti-fracking ballot measures from the November election and replace them with a blue-ribbon commission. But other elected Democrats, including stridently anti-fracking officials presiding in places like Boulder County, aren’t immune from activists’ antics or their attention.
That includes Boulder County Commissioner, Elise Jones, who experienced the encroachment of anti-fracking groups targeting her for a protest at what they believed was her home. Trouble is, Jones hasn’t lived in the house for five years.
“Happily, no one was at home, but as you might imagine, the current residents were very confused when they came home to find an oil drum in the driveway and threatening chalk messages drawn up and down the sidewalk and the steps to the house,” Jones wrote in an email to reporters. “I went over to apologize and to try and clean everything up,” she said. Jones opposes fracking and expressed sympathy for the protesters’ point of view, but she drew the line with anti-fracking activism that includes trespassing onto private properties, according to the Longmont Times Call.
Boulder County has been a hotbed of opposition to oil and gas development, even with most of the development over the last decade occurring outside the county’s boundaries. That didn’t stop protesters, however.
As early as 2012, oil and gas employees have faced heated, often confrontational encounters with protesters.
Wendy Wiedenbeck, a representative of Encana Oil & Gas, was introduced to such tactics at a Boulder County commission meeting.
“It was very obvious that it was going to be a tough night … ,” Wiedenbeck said at the time. “People were trying to block us as we walked through hallways.”
The Denver Post’s Vincent Carroll captured Wiedenbeck’s harrowing exit following testimony before the commission that had been repeatedly interrupted.
“‘I had asked someone with me to contact security officers to walk with us to the car just as a precaution,’ she said, and as soon as the guards and two Encana employees, both women, left the building they were ‘bombarded with individuals screaming and video cameras in our face. It was a level of name-calling [‘killers,’ for example] and intimidation I’ve never experienced before,’” Carroll wrote.
Wiedenbeck and her companion sought refuge in a car, believing that they were in immediate “physical danger.” That feeling was compounded when another vehicle appeared to block them in, while an anti-fracking protester pounded their vehicle. They pair was forced to call 911 for a police escort.
Before concluding that Wiedenbeck was targeted only because of her employment, one must also consider the reaction by Boulder County commissioners—certainly no fans of oil and gas development—to the disruptions that occurred that evening.
So appalled by the antics of the anti-fracking protesters, the commissioners announced new security plans and called for the removal of individuals who “elect not to participate in civil discourse.” They also promised to prosecute anyone threatening the safety of others at the meetings.
They described a “bullying atmosphere” as the meeting had been delayed due to protesters chanting demands the commissioners should resign if they did not agree to the predetermined outcome of a ban on fracking.
It also included “cheering for threatening rhetoric.”
“The troubling activities last night included the disruption at the beginning of the hearing by a group of individuals intent on overpowering anyone in the room with an opinion different than their own; the jeering of a spokesperson from the oil and gas industry during her testimony — and mob harassment, cursing at and intimidation of the same representative and her colleagues as they left the building and walked several blocks to their cars; a bullying atmosphere in and around the hearing room; and outbursts of cheering for threatening rhetoric aimed at quashing opposing opinions,” the commissioners’ statement read.
“In my mind, the fundamental problem with the hearing we had last night was the behavior of a certain subset of the folks who were there that were really determined to intimidate anyone who had a different perspective,” Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor said in a statement.
“Last night’s effort by a small segment of attendees to threaten and intimidate a speaker walking to her car was nothing short of shameful. Public hearings should create a space for everyone to feel comfortable to participate,” the commissioners wrote in their statement.
“In my opinion, (the protesters’ goal) was to intimidate and perhaps even to harm. It certainly felt that way,” Wiedenbeck later wrote. “It crosses a dangerous and ridiculous line when people believe that they have the right to treat another person that way. Does this group speak for the community of Boulder? I certainly hope not.”
Those antics have not abated. And while the following examples do not represent an exhaustive review of such similar incidents, they reinforce the prevalence of intimidation, threatening behavior, and even violent rhetoric that raises safety concerns for those engaging in the public policy debate, without respect to party or ideological lines.
At a September 2017 townhall meeting, approximately 40 protesters angry with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation sported chemical hazardous material suits and gas masks and shut down the event. They continued their protest outside, as they shouted at people exiting the forum forcing police to provide escorts to their vehicles outside the venue.
Former Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Tisha Schuller was no stranger to anti-oil and gas opposition, or long hours defending the industry against “misinformation, fear, and hyperbole.” Schuller described in a blog post the anger felt by those at public meetings and even in her own community, where no oil and gas development was planned.
“Nevertheless, antifracking ‘education’ messages were distributed in mountain resident community emails, discussing the threat of fracking and encouraging residents to ‘Ban fracking before it’s too late!’” Schuller wrote. “It didn’t matter that fracking wasn’t viable in our community, nor that most of the impacts cited were exaggerated if not fabricated. Opposition to fracking had become a culture war touchstone for liberal environmentalists in Colorado.”
The messaging escalated into confrontation. “Going anywhere in public became a nightmare. My early morning workouts were not even sacred. Before the sun was up, people I’d swum with for years were accosting me,” wrote Schuller. “‘You’re a mother — how can you live with yourself?’”
Though Schuller expressed a “natural kinship” with opponents, describing her environmental commitment throughout her life. But the protesters had started to turn from verbal assaults.
“Community opponents were often shrill and always angry. They would stand inches from my face and yell, often with spittle flying,” Schuller wrote.
But soon the threats, as Schuller called them, were not limited to angry encounters at the gym or nasty, spittle-filled yelling at late night community forums or city council meetings.
They were focused on Schuller herself, but now included her entire family, including her children.
“Then came the threats. When I think about them, I still fold my body forward and round my shoulders. For more than a year, my family had regular check-ins from the Boulder County Sheriff. We removed all identifying names and numbers from our house and mailbox,” Schuller wrote. “Our neighbors and the Four Mile Fire Department kept photographs of the individuals who had threatened us. The boys often had a sheriff at their school, ever since one group of activists had posted pictures of them, their school, and school address online with taglines like ‘Disgusting.’”
Schuller was thankful for “local, state, and FBI investigative support” that she said “scared away the amateurs.”
“But environmental and liberal groups never spoke out against the tactics used against my family. Their implied judgment seemed to be that my family and I deserved the threats and harassment we received,” Schuller wrote.
An April 2017 letter to the editor in the Boulder Daily Camera sparked national coverage. “If the oil and gas industry puts fracking wells in our neighborhoods, threatening our lives and our children’s lives, then don’t we have a moral responsibility to blow up wells and eliminate fracking and workers?” the letter said in its original, unedited form.
Western Wire coverage prompted the Daily Camera to edit the letter and defend its decision to publish the “philosophical question” at the center of the letter. Responses to the letter’s tenor and implied threats of violence drew immediate, bipartisan revulsion.
“Men and women, employed by the fossil fuel industry placed at risk of wanton violence and destruction of property, by a person who is obviously opposed to fracking? To place in jeopardy the safety of these workers? And you call this a philosophical discussion?” Colorado State Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) wrote in response to the paper’s defense.
“[A]dvocating violence does not seem to fit any decent platform that I am aware of,” Crowder wrote. “The discussion should be centered on disagreement and not potential violence or destruction.”
“This type of rhetoric clearly goes too far,” Colorado State Rep. Chris Hansen (D-Denver) said on the state House floor following the publication of the letter, in an address to his colleagues.
“I have friends who work in energy companies, as I think many of us in this room do, and to call for eliminating workers simply goes too far,” Hansen continued. “We cannot accept this type of rhetoric that is calling for violence, that is calling for vigilantism. That is simply out of bounds in Colorado.”
Despite the outcry, the letter’s author, Andrew O’Connor, stuck to his original violent rhetoric. “I wouldn’t have a problem with a sniper shooting one of the workers” at a well site, O’Connor told Colorado Politics a few days later. “I believe fracking is murder.”
Citing the O’Connor writings, more than 80 members of the U.S. House sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice in late October 2017, calling for a review of legislation and prosecutorial attention to attacks on the nation’s pipeline infrastructure.
“Multiple media sources have reported recent attempts to disrupt the transmission of oil and natural gas through interstate and international pipeline infrastructure,” the House members wrote. “In some instances individuals have used blow torches to burn holes in pipelines or promoted violence against oil and gas company employees.”
“Our country is home to an intricate web of interstate and cross-border pipelines that transport the oil and gas that power our communities, offices, and vehicles,” Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told Western Wire, explaining his support for the letter. “Operating this vital infrastructure requires extensive training and attentive personnel. Disrupting or tampering with an active pipeline could have damaging effects on our communities, endanger workers, and inhibit our access to energy. And while I encourage all Americans to assert their First Amendment rights, I encourage them to do so in a safe and peaceful way.”
Members of Congress had many concrete examples of protesters targeting pipelines—but also an encounter between a Dakota Access pipeline protester and law enforcement officials that could have been deadly. The 2016 incident led to federal charges of discharging a firearm three times as Red Fawn Fallis was being detained. Fallis pled guilty to avoid a possible life sentence had she been convicted.
Other protesters launching a coordinated, multi-state protest in late 2016 to show solidarity with the Dakota Access protesters like Fallis. The “valve-turners” turned their attention to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. After a conviction in North Dakota, one of the main protesters was hailed as a “hero” by climate change activist Dr. James Hansen, former director of the U.S. NASA Goddard Space Institute. “Michael Foster isn’t a criminal; he’s a hero.”