The Trump administration is advocating for the criminalization of certain forms of pipeline protests at the federal level, echoing similar efforts at the state level. This move comes in response to a rise in incidents near oil and gas pipelines in recent years.
As reported by Western Wire, anti-pipeline protests have gained increased visibility, with various demonstrations, arrests, and convictions capturing national attention.
To address acts of sabotage or obstruction related to pipelines, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within the Transportation Department proposed measures earlier this week to enhance criminal penalties for damaging or interfering with pipeline facilities.
The proposal “would strengthen the existing criminal penalty measures for damaging or destroying a pipeline facility. It would specify that vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting, or inhibiting the operation of a pipeline facility are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment. It would also specify that pipeline facilities under construction are included within the scope of the damage prohibitions in addition to operational pipeline facilities.”
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In late 2017, over 80 bipartisan members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice, urging a review of existing legislation related to attacks on pipeline infrastructure.
The letter conveyed concern about acts of vandalism and other attempts to disrupt pipeline operations, citing potential damage and significant disruptions as reasons for the request.
“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 October 2017. “In some instances individuals have used blow torches to burn holes in pipelines or promoted violence against oil and gas company employees.”
Later that year, the Energy Builders’ Energy Infrastructure Incident Reporting Center was launched to track infrastructure attacks, such as a Seattle activist who was sentenced to prison for one year in early 2018 in relation to his attempted sabotage of the Keystone XL Pipeline as an act of solidarity with Dakota Access Pipeline protests occurring in the fall of 2016 in North Dakota.
As Politico reports, expansion of the current law that includes fines and up to 20 years in prison was quick to draw opposition from anti-pipeline activists.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said he “has no intention of allowing a pipeline safety bill to be used as a vehicle for stifling legitimate dissent and protest,” according to a spokesman.
PHMSA spokesperson Darius Kirkwood, however, told Politico, “This proposal is not meant in any way to inhibit lawful protesters from exercising their first amendment rights, and PHMSA is committed to working with Congress to make sure that this is clear in any final legislation.”
In a statement, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said, “This provision is a clear infringement on the basic right of speech and assembly and a poorly veiled effort to undermine the ability of Native and Indigenous communities to advocate for themselves and their tribal lands.”
Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said, “Generally speaking, INGAA is in favor of laws that serve to deter pipeline vandalism,” according to a spokesman. “Tampering with or vandalizing critical infrastructure can create serious safety risks to the public, pipeline employees and the perpetrators. These acts of vandalism could also have devastating environmental impacts.”
Pipeline safety authorization is set to expire by the end of September, necessitating timely renewal.
Six states have enacted laws criminalizing protests near “critical infrastructure,” and Texas and Missouri are anticipated to follow suit, reports Politico.
These laws have generated opposition from environmental groups and Native American tribes, some of whom were involved in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.
In that context, there were instances of more aggressive actions, such as a protester pleading guilty to firing at law enforcement, and others advocating “peaceful direct action,” including using a cutting torch to disrupt pipeline construction in 2017.
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