Oil pipeline protesters who interrupt operations or damage equipment could face up to 10 years in prison under legislation approved by Texas lawmakers.
Under a bill approved by both chambers of the state legislature, protesters found guilty of halting service or delaying construction of an oil or natural gas pipeline could be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years of incarceration. That’s on a par with the sentences meted out to drive-by shooters who fail to hit their mark.
The measure, authored by Republican Representative Chris Paddie, cleared the Texas House on May 7 and the Senate on Monday. The Texas Oil & Gas Association applauded its passage and said the bill provides property owners and pipeline companies “greater protections against intentional damage, delays, and stoppages caused by illegal activity.”
The bill still needs Governor Greg Abbott’s signature to become law. A representative for Abbott didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, called the measure an assault on free speech. “The bill was never about safety and security,” Cyrus Reed, interim director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said in an email. “It was about silencing protesters trying to protect their water and land.”
States have been taking action to prepare for pipeline protests as environmental groups increasingly target infrastructure as part of their opposition to fossil fuels.
Energy Transfer LP’s Dakota Access crude pipeline drew months of on-the-ground protests in North Dakota, and EQM Midstream Partners LP saw protesters stage “tree sit-ins” in an effort to stop work on the Mountain Valley natural gas conduit in Virginia.
Earlier this year, South Dakota advanced legislation to allow the state to seek money from pipeline companies to help cover expenses related to protests. That bill aims to ready South Dakota for the contentious Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, which is held up in court but recently scored a new presidential permit from the Trump administration.
Illinois is considering legislation that would increase penalties for trespassing, damaging, or “inhibiting operations” at pipelines, refineries and a broad swath of other areas deemed “critical infrastructure facilities.”
“It appears that under this law, something as small as breaking a zip tie could result in felony charges punishable by up to 5 years in prison and $100,000 in fines,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group opposed to the bill.
The NRDC and other critics tie the bills to model legislation finalized last year by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pairs corporate lobbyists with state legislatures to write bills that are then introduced in state house’s across the nation. The group’s backers include the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, which itself represents pipeline operators such as Phillips 66, whose affiliate owns a stake in Dakota Access.