Texas State Legislature passed a law that makes it a felony to protest against a pipeline even it is passing through your private land. House Bill 3557 criminalizes damage to so-called critical infrastructure facilities, including oil and gas facilities that are under construction, with a third-degree felony, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Violators who “impair or interrupt” operations or who entered property with the intent to damage it will face a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in prison.
This law is similar to laws passed in Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota. It is the brain child of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which is a conservative group and has been active in supporting laws in state legislatures that are championed by right wing groups. The author and sponsor of the bill in both the House and Senate have ties to ALEC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Senator Brian Birdwell and Texas House Representative Chris Paddie attended ALEC conferences in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Senator Birdwell is from Dallas-Fort Worth area (Granbury) and is up for reelection in 2020. These elected representatives have the interests of Oil and Gas Industry close to their hearts. The concerns of average Texan and their families come second behind special interests.
Protests against building of an oil pipeline through Sioux land considered sacred by the tribe erupted in 2016 and 2017. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) or Bakken pipeline is a 1,172-mile-long (1,886 km) underground oil pipeline in the United States. The protest against construction of DAPL by the Indigenous People was joined by environmental groups from all over US. Eventually, the pipeline was built and became operational. However, the environmental groups were energized and started coordinating efforts against similar pipelines. The new legislation signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott could make environmental groups’ fight against the 650-mile Jupiter oil pipeline and Kinder Morgan’s 430-mile Permian Highway gas pipeline more difficult. Both pipelines, when completed will carry fossil fuels from oil patches in West Texas’ Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast.
Jennifer K. Falcon is campaign manager for the Society of Native Nations, in a press release, adding that she believes the measure is a violation of the First Amendment.
Activists and First Amendment advocates are fighting back. Environmental and civil liberties groups filed suit on behalf of landowners and activists in Louisiana alleging that the state’s anti-pipeline protest law is unconstitutional, and advocates in Texas say they are closely monitoring the lawsuit. In South Dakota, after Governor Kristi Noem supported and signed bills that prohibit “riot-boosting” and enable the government to collect damages from protesters, the Oglala Sioux Tribe told her she’s “not welcome” on their reservation.
“These are our lands and our water,” the tribe’s president, Julian Bear Runner, wrote in a letter to Governor Noem. “If you do not honor this directive … we will have no choice but to banish you.”
The ACLU has also filed suit challenging South Dakota’s new law on behalf of some groups – environmental and indigenous rights groups. Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the ACLU, highlighted one particular provision that allows the government to collect damages from protesters and use the money to cover the expenses of law enforcement.
Even though this law has been passed in Texas but does not mean that all is lost. Environmental Justice Activists must continue their efforts to roll back this law that is so damaging to our First Amendment Rights and environment.