At least 15 states have passed or proposed bills that further criminalize trespassing on fossil fuel infrastructure, a trend that environmental and free speech advocates argue unnecessarily targets pipeline protesters and indigenous leaders.
In 2018, Louisiana passed a bill that makes trespassing on so-called “critical infrastructure” a more serious offense than existing trespassing laws. While trespassing has long been considered a misdemeanor, the law now specifies that the same act on particular private property is now a felony. Throughout the country, trespassing laws have been edited to define ‘critical infrastructure’ as fossil fuel facilities, including proposed pipeline routes where there is no existing infrastructure yet.
“These are people saying, ‘let’s make sure we have something left for future generations’ … and for that we were charged with felonies, we were beaten, we were stepped on, I was choked,” Cherri Foytlin, a pipeline protester in Louisiana, told the press.
Similar laws have passed in Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Indiana and Iowa. The backlash is largely due to the massive 2017 protest of a pipeline at Standing Rock, led by the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. Bi-partisan supporters of the states’ new legislation argue that the intent is to dissuade acts of terrorism; however, many opponents feel the existing trespassing laws were sufficient.
For many environmental activists, these new laws are further proof of the government’s allegiance to the fossil fuel industry, and they believe threats of felonies, jail time and high fines will discourage other activists from voicing their opinions against pipeline development.
Across 15 states, possible consequences include 10 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines. Those who do not trespass themselves but merely support activists verbally or financially are also liable before the law.
This month, the Natural Resources Defense Council published an alarming blog post inquiring if merely “liking” a Facebook post about a pipeline protest could be considered illegal under South Dakota’s newest legislation. In Indiana’s Bill 471, so-called “conspirators” can also be fined up to $100,000.
Image via Luke Jones