The Trump administration has lent its support to criminalising protests against the construction of pipelines.

A wave of laws and bills around the United States are targeting environmental protesters, infringing on the rights of political expression and having a chilling effect on freedoms, activists and rights groups have warned.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has backed an ongoing effort to criminalise anti-pipeline protests amid a wave of similar laws in state legislatures across the country.

The Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), has released a proposal to expand a law threatening up to two decades in prison for people who “interrupt” the construction of pipelines, Politico first reported in early June.

“It's even broader than just those two changes because the original law [that the proposal would amend] includes language around attempt and conspiracy to commit those offences,” explained Elly Page, Attorney and Legal Adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Page added that the measure would allow for charges to be brought against individuals who had the requisite “intent” and carried out a “substantial step” towards the offence, which could include activities “such as attending planning meetings” for protests that interfere with pipeline construction.

Lawmakers in at least six US states – Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee – have green-lighted laws introducing tougher penalties targeting pipeline protesters. Similar measures are pending in several other states.

Many of the new laws and bills were introduced in the context of specific protest movements, such as demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Page said.

“In a number of cases, lawmakers that sponsored these bills have said explicitly that they're targeting protests,” Page said. “They often in doing so invoke ‘law-and-order’ arguments but fail to acknowledge how this legislation chips away at individuals’ constitutional rights.”

In Texas, the state legislature passed a bill that supporters say will accelerate the construction of more than 17,700 kilometres of pipeline by criminalising protests that “interfere” with the building of “critical infrastructure”.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign that bill into law, adding Texas to the list of states escalating efforts to deter environmental protests. At the time of publication, Abbott’s office had not replied to TRT World’s request for comment.

Protesting rights targeted

Critics say the clampdown on anti-pipeline activism fits into a broader pattern of taking aim at protests and freedom of expression, raising concerns about First Amendment rights.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s tracker, at least 35 states have considered 100 bills targeting protesting. Of that total, 14 were passed and became law, two were updated and enacted, and 26 remain pending.

Some of the bills have targeted activism around pipelines and other forms of “critical infrastructure”, many target the parameters of legally permissible protesting and others reduce liability for people who harm demonstrators.

Some rights groups and advocacy organisations have challenged the laws in courts.

On Wednesday, dozens of protesters gathered outside a courthouse in Rapid City, South Dakota, as a judge listened to arguments in one such lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit taking on two laws in South Dakota.

The legislation allows authorities to seek money from individuals and organisations that participate in “riot boosting” – participating in, encouraging or funding “destructive” protests, according to local media reports.

The riot boosting law was crafted to take aim at protesters that rally against pipeline projects.

In this Nov. 20, 2016 file photo, provided by Morton County Sheriff's Department, law enforcement and protesters clash near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D.
In this Nov. 20, 2016 file photo, provided by Morton County Sheriff's Department, law enforcement and protesters clash near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D. (AP)

‘Revisiting earlier tactics’

The Sierra Club, a US-based environmental organisation, has also sounded the alarm on the government’s crackdown on environmental activism, arguing that indigenous communities and those located near pipelines often bear the greatest risks.

Between April 2016 and February 2017, people from across the nation joined indigenous protesters rallying against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Federal prosecutors subsequently dealt indictments against a handful of indigenous demonstrators. 

After Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the number of laws and bills targeting protests appeared to increase in frequency and severity.

Michael Loadenthal, a visiting Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Miami University in Ohio, has researched the US government’s history of prosecuting environmental activists for years. Just as during a previous crackdown on environmental activism in the early 2000s—a period known as the Green Scare—the federal government and state legislatures are “revisiting earlier tactics” to intimidate and deter on the movement, he told TRT World.

“Mainstream academia, news media, politicians, and the public have all reached the same conclusion, which is: The environment is reaching a crisis point,” he said. “If we all agree that the environment is reaching a crisis point, is it surprising that [some activists] break the law?”

‘Chilling and discouraging speech’

In Louisiana, organisations are challenging a law targeting anti-pipeline demonstrations that they allege puts the rights of protesters at risk. That law could land a convicted individual behind bars for up to five years and slap them with a $1,000 fine.

The plaintiffs say the law will “chill, and harshly punish, speech and expression in opposition to pipeline projects”.

In a statement released by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Senior Staff Attorney Pamela Spees said: “The average person can find themselves facing five years in prison for literally just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Among the plaintiffs are landowners, protesters and others that oppose the newly-enacted law in Louisiana.

“The oil and gas industry pressed this law forward as a means of chilling and discouraging speech and expression in opposition to pipeline projects, but almost anyone can find themselves on the wrong side of this law,” Spees added.

Source: TRT World