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A statute aimed at suppressing protests against oil and gas pipelines has been signed into law in Oklahoma, as a related bill advances through the state legislature. The two bills are part of a nationwide trend in anti-protest laws meant to significantly increase legal penalties for civil disobedience. The Oklahoma law signed this week is unique, however, in its broad targeting of groups “conspiring” with protesters accused of trespassing. It takes aim at environmental organizations Republicans have blamed for anti-pipeline protests that have become costly for local governments.
The statute Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin approved Wednesday was rushed into immediate effect under a provision that declared the situation “an emergency.” It will dramatically increase penalties against protesters who trespass on property containing a “critical infrastructure facility.”
Under the newly signed trespassing law individuals will face a felony and a minimum $10,000 fine if a court determines they entered property intending to damage, vandalize, deface, “impede or inhibit operations of the facility.” Should the trespasser actually succeed in “tampering” with the infrastructure, they face a $100,000 fine or 10 years of imprisonment.
Significantly, the statute also implicates any organization “found to be a conspirator” with the trespasser, threatening collaborator groups with a fine “ten times” that imposed on the intruder — as much as $1 million in cases involving damage.
A section of the law defining “critical infrastructure” includes various types of fossil fuel facilities. Oklahoma is a center of the oil and gas industry and home of the self-styled “Pipeline Crossroads of the World” in Cushing. The state has seen a dramatic increase in earthquakes since the nation’s fracking boom began, as companies began pumping wastewater produced from hydraulic fracturing underground. The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association is a supporter of the legislation.
A second bill, passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Thursday, would permit “vicarious liability” for groups that “compensate” protesters accused of trespassing. The bill’s author reportedly called it a response to the Dakota Access pipeline protests, aimed directly at organizers fighting to stop the Diamond pipeline, a project of Valero and All American Pipeline that would transport oil from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Protests against the pipeline have already begun and construction is scheduled for completion before the end of the year.
The trope of the “professional protester” has long been a talking point for those who disagree with participants’ politics. It was used widely this year by Republicans frustrated by a series of anti-Trump protests after his election and inauguration. It was also used against demonstrators involved in massive actions in defiance of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, which were violently repressed by police. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is seeking $38 million in compensation from the federal government for costs associated with the police response and with cleaning up resistance camps whose residents were evicted in February.
According to Public Radio Tulsa, Democrat Rep. Cory Williams demanded to know the definition of “compensation” under the liability bill. “Is it a check? Is it money? Is it staying at somebody’s house?” he asked.
“That would be for the courts to decide,” replied Rep. Mark McBride, the bill’s author.
Doug Parr has represented numerous environmental activists in Oklahoma protest cases. In an interview with The Intercept the attorney noted the liability bill’s loose wording. “Say they lock themselves to a piece of construction equipment, and a claim can be made that there were damages from that trespass,” Parr said. “Does this statute create a civil action for a pipeline company to then go after a person or organization that posted bond or helped pay for a lawyer for that civil disobedience?”
Parr noted that under the new trespassing law a violation as minor as spray-painting a message on an oil facility could plausibly lead to $100,000 in fines if a court determined it was “defacing equipment.”
And he said the law amplifies risks for groups that organize protest actions, who can’t always account for the diversity of tactics used by attendees. “Suppose an organization decides they want to support a perfectly legal, no civil disobedience, action,” he said. “Somebody in that crowd, who has come to the protest at the request of that organization, then jumps the fence and runs in there and spray-paints on a storage tank, ‘This equipment causes earthquakes. Shut it down.’ … These statutes could be used to attack that organization and impose financial liability on them.”
Johnson Bridgwater, head of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes the Diamond pipeline, noted that the club has an official policy against participation in civil disobedience. (Its board suspended the rule in 2013 before executive director Michael Brune was arrested in a protest calling for then-President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.) However, he said, “We don’t necessarily know everyone who’s attending the events,” adding, “There is a strong and real fear that this could be used as an attempt to crush a group or a chapter of Sierra Club unfairly.”
Bold Oklahoma is part of a coalition attempting to halt the Diamond pipeline’s construction. Asked whether the group supports direct action, director Mekasi Camp Horinek replied, “We stand behind the people, and if people choose to do that, we’re going to stand behind them in that choice, but that’s always an individual choice. There’s nobody that’s going to tell somebody else to do something illegal or put their bodies or their families in harm’s way.”
Horinek traveled to North Dakota and was arrested with others opposing the Dakota Access pipeline. “That’s exactly what they were saying about me, that I was an out-of-state, paid protester, because I worked for an environmental organization,” he said. “I don’t think that when we’re talking about life, not only the life of our children and the life of our brothers and sisters, but when we’re talking about life itself, all living things on the planet, that state borders are going to deter or stop anybody from going to try to protect a body of water.”
“I’m an enrolled member of the Ponca Nation, and we were forcefully removed to the state of Oklahoma in 1876,” he said. Before that, his tribe relied on the Missouri River, the body of water Standing Rock tribal members sought to protect by blocking the oil pipeline. “I was there first as a father, as a son, as a brother. Secondly I was there as a Ponca tribal member, protecting the Missouri River. Last but not least, I was representing the Bold organization that I work for.”
As of April 2, Common Dreams counted 19 anti-protest bills across the United States. Bills in Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota were directly aimed at activists attempting to block oil and gas infrastructure. Other laws, in places like Minnesota, responded to protests in 2015 and 2016 that blocked roads and highways after police killings of black men and women in various cities.
Bridgwater said his biggest concern is reserved for citizens who might think twice before attending a protest. “We see all of these bills as nothing more than corporate America being fearful of how successful the Standing Rock protests were.”