Bill to Protect Pipelines From Public Records Requests Moves Forward in North Dakota
“I think this is clearly a response to what you learned through freedom of information requests… They did not like to have to disclose that information. This is an effort to prevent that in the future.”
Senate Bill 2209 (SB 2209) in North Dakota, a seemingly nondescript amendment to North Dakota’s open records law, would shroud pipelines in a veil of secrecy and make records related to pipeline projects exempt from disclosure requirements.
The Intercept first reported on SB 2209 in early February, weeks after the North Dakota state senate approved the amendment and SB 2209 moved on to the state assembly.
According to Press Freedom Tracker, the current version of North Dakota’s open records act includes a relatively narrow exemption (44-04-24) for any “security system plan” related to “critical infrastructure,” which the law defines as “public buildings, systems, including telecommunications centers and computers, power generation plants, dams, bridges, and similar key resources.”
SB 2209 would amend North Dakota’s open records law by expanding the definition of “critical infrastructure” to include “systems related to utility services, fuel supply, energy, hazardous liquid, natural gas, or coal.”
Public records requests related to law enforcement and state official’s handling of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that gripped the nation in 2016 were crucial to various investigations and court cases involving the protests.
“Documents published as part of The Intercept’s Oil and Water series played a significant role in the criminal defense of Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Chase Iron Eyes and Oglala Lakota Sioux water protector Red Fawn Fallis. A class-action lawsuit alleging excessive brutality by North Dakota police also relied on The Intercept’s reporting, as did a lawsuit that state regulators filed against TigerSwan, the mercenary firm that oversaw the DAPL security operation,” The Intercept wrote.
But if North Dakota passes SB 2209, state officials could deny requests regarding law enforcement surveillance of pipeline protestors.
“I think this is clearly a response to what you learned through freedom of information requests,” Jeffrey Haas, a civil rights attorney and member of the Water Protector Legal Collective, told The Intercept. “They did not like to have to disclose that information. This is an effort to prevent that in the future.”
So far SB 2209 looks like it has a good chance to pass into law. SB 2209 was passed unanimously in the North Dakota state senate on January 22 and is awaiting a vote in the state’s House of Representatives.
Another bill, seemingly in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, is SB 2044 which would make “tampering with or damaging a critical infrastructure facility or a public service” a Class C felony.
According to a Freedom of the Press Foundation report, “an increasing number of state legislatures around the country have passed or are considering bills that designate oil pipelines as ‘critical infrastructure,’ which allows the state to bring felony charges against pipeline protesters and the journalists who cover them,” as Press Freedom Tracker wrote.