It’s hardly a shock that environmentalists wanted to protest against Louisiana’s Bayou Bridge pipeline while it was still under construction last year. The 167-mile-long project from Energy Transfer Partners — the builders behind the Dakota Access pipeline, where Native American protests made national news in 2016 — cut through the Bayou State’s most sensitive wetlands, ripping out the cypress trees where birds once nested and creating massive dirt piles that blocked the flow of streams.
But there was a surprise — a big one — one morning in August 2018 for three out-of-state environmental activists who tried to paddle their kayaks out to see the remote area where work was taking place. A fleet of fan boats — manned by a private security force, composed mostly of off-duty area lawmen — appeared from nowhere and forced the three onshore, where they were arrested, handcuffed, jailed, and charged with a felony rap they didn’t even know existed.
That’s because the Louisiana law making it a felony to enter “critical infrastructure,” such as the area around energy pipelines, had been on the books for only nine days. The law had been enacted in the wake of those high-profile 2016 protests in North Dakota — and was part of a nationwide push for a host of states to adopt similar laws, all backed by pro-business lobbying groups that are heavily funded by Big Oil.
Now that crusade — to make it even more of a crime to protest at pipelines, fracking rigs, or more than a dozen other places that lawmakers cite as “critical infrastructure” — is coming to Pennsylvania. Again.
Earlier this month, State Sen. Mike Regan, a Cumberland County Republican, introduced a bill in Harrisburg that creates a new category of felony criminal trespass for such sites in Pennsylvania — an epicenter of a fracking boom for more than a decade, where proposed pipelines to move that fracked natural gas have generated tons of controversy. Regan’s proposal could punish violators with a year in jail and a fine of at least $5,000 for a first-time offense.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, the GOP senator’s plan is almost identical to a 2017 bill that passed the Pennsylvania Senate and died in the House. That bill also sparked a backlash from critics who said the bill’s only really purpose was to ice the First Amendment rights of legitimate dissenters, and scare away protest newcomers.
Also back for another go-round is an arguably more punitive measure from a different GOP lawmaker — Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster County, site of some of Pennsylvania’s most intense anti-pipeline protests — that aims to make protesters responsible for paying back governments for the costs of responding to their actions. A similar bill went nowhere in 2017.
Elizabeth Randol, the legislative director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed these bills, told me the measures are for the most part redundant with existing trespassing laws, but that enacting these measures could allow prosecutors to stack up criminal charges against those who want to protest against fossil fuels.
“Sometimes, just the attention that this type of legislation gets has a chilling effect,” Randol said. In other words, everyday people thinking about joining a local protest against a new pipeline in their backyard — or because they want to see fossil fuels curbed in an era of accelerating climate change — might think twice if facing a felony rap and jail time.
That sense of déjà vu is not just because this is the second attempt in Harrisburg. The language in the Regan and Martin bills is also pretty much identical with legislation that, since the Dakota pipeline protests, has been placed on the books in nine heavily Republican “red states” and is being considered in a dozen more.
Most follow the “model legislation” that the pro-corporate lobby called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC — which is supported by oil and gas giants like Chesapeake Energy, Continental Resources, and ExxonMobil — approved in 2017, right after the Dakota Access protests. This summer, the Intercept reported that the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry lobby, had been bragging about its role about getting essentially the same bill introduced in so many states.
Why the new push? Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it comes at a moment when a) the climate crisis is spiraling out of control and b) millions of young people have already taken to the streets to protest the failure of so-called grown-ups to do anything about it. It was recently reported that September was the planet’s hottest September ever — the latest climate record to fall like dominoes, month after month after month. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that Big Oil companies are venting and flaring record amounts of natural gas into the atmosphere in the central United States, basically demolishing the claim that fracking is part of the greenhouse-gas solution when it’s really part of the problem.
Pennsylvania, too, has a huge problem with leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from our fracking rigs, but the state has managed to slow-walk proposed curbs on the problem. Maybe that’s because too many of our lawmakers are soaking in Big Oil’s lavish attention and its campaign cash, and think that keeping these spigots of crude and cash open is more important than addressing global warming while there’s still time to do something.
Younger groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement have been stepping up their civil disobedience campaigns — blocking streets from Washington to London, because that seems the only way to keep their fight on the front pages while the oil lobbyists and our elected officials are writing punitive bills behind closed doors. It’s a pretty safe bet that when — or if — the history books are ever written about the 21st century, the real criminals on the books won’t be the people who spoke out but the leaders who did nothing.
This month’s climate tip: Buy less stuff. This year I’ve pledged to write a column about climate change every month — and I have (!), although sometimes it seems as if that’s still not enough. These little tips are a reminder that — while the biggest cause of the climate crisis is not you but the large, polluting corporations — you can still contribute to the solution, seize the moral high ground, and avoid despair by taking steps in your own life.