Couched by supporters as a way to thwart terrorists from damaging pipelines, a state Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday that opponents say only provides a way to squelch protests and could unintentionally lead to throwing crawfishermen in jail.
“If you don’t damage anything this law does not apply. It’s important that we protect those pipelines,” said Rep. Major Thibaut, D-News Roads and sponsor of House Bill 727.
The measure would add pipelines to the critical infrastructure list. That means anyone who damages a pipeline could face up to 15 years in prison and someone who unlawfully enters land on which the pipeline is located or is being built could get up to five years imprisonment if the measure becomes law.
Senate Judiciary C on a 5-1 vote sent the House-passed bill to the full Senate for consideration.
Environmental activist Meg Logue, of New Orleans, said “hyper criminalizing” existing law is clearly aimed at dampening protests to the construction of pipelines, which she calls a danger to Louisiana’s fragile swamplands.
Logue was arrested in February during a protest of the Bayou Bridge pipeline project in Belle Rose. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which when complete can transport 480,000 barrels of crude oil a day, starts at refineries south of Beaumont, Texas and travels across Louisiana to St. James on the Mississippi River.
Logue was put in a diversion program for her trespassing-related offenses and will spend no time in jail.
If Thibaut’s bill becomes law, that same arrest would send her to prison for up to five years with a $1,000 fine, she said. If prosecutors wanted, they could up the charges and she would have to defend herself against dramatically increased sentences, she said.
“Clearly the purpose is to chill lawful dissent,” Logue said.
More than 50,000 miles of pipelines transport explosive and flammable liquids and gases through Louisiana. That makes them just as critical as nuclear power generators, electrical transmission substations, refineries and other facilities with the designation, Thibaut said.
His legislation was amended to specifically allow for lawful protest gatherings. And legislators removed the crime of conspiring to damage critical infrastructure.
“The attempt is to address those who protest the wrong way,” said state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles.
Central Republican Sen. Bodi White said the state’s many pipelines are a tempting target for terrorists.
“We’re not talking about terrorism,” said William P. Quigley is a law professor and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans.
Rather, the legislation, with its harsher penalties, is singling out specific types of protests that have become increasingly common at pipeline and construction sites.
The language of the proposed law tracks drafts circulated by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and is similar to legislation passed by Oklahoma and being considered in states like Wyoming and Iowa.
Quigley said the bill raises confusion about what constitutes trespassing, particularly around pipelines that are not fenced off like a railroad switching yard or a trucking terminal, which are also listed as “critical infrastructure.”
Jody Meche, of Henderson, said trespassing is a particular worry for people like him who make their living crawfishing in the Atchafalaya Basin swamp.
Commercial and recreational fishermen are constantly passing over and around the hundreds of miles of pipelines that crisscross slews and bayous.
“We could potentially be targeted,” Meche said, arguing that everyday he spends in court trying to prove he was in a navigable water way rather than trespassing is day he can’t make money.
“I get paid to catch crawfish. I don’t get paid when I’m in court and I don’t get paid being up here today,” Meche said waving to the standing room alone crowd of well-dressed lobbyists for the energy companies.