Fearful of large-scale protests like those that surrounded the Dakota Access pipeline, Louisiana legislators have joined their counterparts in other states to introduce legislation that specifically protects pipelines and establishes penalties for people who seek to damage them.
Environmentalists consider the proposal a dangerous infringement on First Amendment rights, especially language that criminalizes “conspiracy” to damage a pipeline or even just trespass.
The issue came to a head in the last week, when work crews found damage to equipment being used to build Bayou Bridge, a controversial Louisiana pipeline owned by the same company that owns Dakota Access. Up to that point, pipeline opponents had fought Bayou Bridge through courts, at permit hearings and via protests. Leaders of local environmental groups have denounced the destruction of property, but investigators are still trying to identify who caused the damage.
House Bill 727 was introduced Monday. Louisiana law specifically prohibits trespassing at various sites known as critical infrastructure. Power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, water treatment facilities, natural gas terminals and the like are already considered critical infrastructure. The new law would add pipelines and construction areas for critical infrastructure sites.
The bill also lays out penalties for people who damage such sites — one to 15 years in prison with a $10,000 fine or six to 20 years plus a $25,000 fine if the damage could threaten human life or disrupt site operations. Blowtorches, explosives and possibly firearms all could be used to damage pipelines, according to various sources.
Finally, it criminalizes “conspiracy” to commit trespass with up to a year behind bars. Conspiracy to commit damage would be punishable by one to 20 years and fines of up to $250,000, depending on whether the judge thinks the conspiracy would have threatened life or operations.
Louisiana must protect its energy sector workers, property owners and the pipelines that form the backbone of the state’s economy, bill sponsor Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads. Dozens of other legislators have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.
“There’s a right way to go about protesting and a wrong way. … One mishap puts us all in danger,” Thibaut said.
And it’s not just about industry workers, he said. He said protesters need an incentive not to damage property for their own safety as well.
Environmental leaders and activists have criticized the bill.
By criminalizing damage to pipelines, legislators would be heading down a slippery slope of going after the people trying to protect the land and water rather than the people who destroy them, said Cherri Foytlin, leader of the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s the wrong thing to focus on,” she said.
Meg Logue, of 350 New Orleans, noted that laws already are in place against trespassing and damage to private property. She would know; she was one of three people arrested a few weeks ago for blocking a Bayou Bridge construction site in Assumption Parish.
The trio stood or sat in a construction area but did not damage any property, and Logue said she isn’t interested in doing so. Like Foytlin, she sees the problem as a one of establishing priorities.
Work temporarily stopped on the Bayou Bridge pipeline near Belle Rose Monday after a handful of environmental protesters stood in the way of t…
“That’s what these pipeline companies are doing … they’re poisoning the environment. Where’s their (prison time)?” she asked.
Pam Spees is worried about the bill language concerning conspiracy. A lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Spees has represented various groups that have fought Bayou Bridge and state authorities in court. The conspiracy provision allows law enforcement to arrest people before they have actually done anything wrong, even if they are just planning a nonviolent protest, she argued.
“That’s a thought crime, basically. The thought is a felony. That’s really alarming,” she said.
Environmentalists lost another round in court Friday in their continuing fight to stop the Bayou Bridge pipeline project from going forward.
The conspiracy aspect was included for a very specific purpose — to allow authorities to prosecute people who might pay others to damage a pipeline, according to Tyler Gray, attorney for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.
Gray, who helped draft the bill, conceded that the conspiracy language is vague but said it is legally sound.
The legislation is needed because existing laws are not clear and law enforcement needs authority to separate peaceful assembly from criminal damage, Gray said.