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Trump Administration Proposes Up To 20 Years In Prison For Pipeline Protestors

Protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline hold a sit-in in the street next to the San Francisco Federal Building.
Protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline hold a sit-in in the street next to the San Francisco Federal Building. January, 2017. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

A new proposal from the DOT would both increase the maximum sentence for damaging pipelines and broaden the scope of activities considered criminal.

The Trump administration released a proposal on Monday that would make pipeline protestors liable for up to 20 years in prison. The administration’s efforts to criminalize pipeline demonstrations on the federal level reflects numerous new state laws aimed at cracking down on environmental protests.

PHMSA Broadens Pipeline Punishment

Under current federal law, damaging existing pipelines is punishable with fines and up to 10 years in prison. The new proposal, issued by the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), would expand potential punishment to 20 years, and add “vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting or inhibiting the operation of” to both existing pipelines and those “under construction.”

Critics are concerned the proposal would allow protesters to face legal penalties for demonstrating their first amendment rights.

“The proposed penalty is far and away more extreme than what we’ve seen at the state level,” Elly Page, attorney for International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, a nonprofit group that has tracked anti-protest bills through state legislatures, told Politico. “When you combine provisions that vague to penalties that extreme, that creates uncertainty about what is and isn’t legal.”

Democratic lawmakers have condemned the proposal and it will likely be blocked in the House.

“This provision is a clear infringement on the basic right of speech and assembly and a poorly veiled effort to undermine the ability of Native and Indigenous communities to advocate for themselves and their tribal lands,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement.

Although the proposal will most likely be rejected, it represents an intensifying struggle between fossil fuel-producing states and environmental activists who seek to stop the production of new oil and gas infrastructure.

Among the supporters of the proposal is the Natural Gas Council (NGC), which issued a statement of support for the proposed changes and called them a “positive step.” The organization said it looks “forward to reviewing PHMSA’s specific recommendations and to participating in the process to produce a bill that enhances the safety of the industry and the communities that we serve.”

Trump Makes Increasing Fossil Fuel Production a Focus

President Trump, who has referred to climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” has made increasing fossil fuel production a focal point of his policy agenda. Former coal lobbyists head both the EPA and the Interior Department, and have been heavily criticized by environmentalist groups for sidelining scientists and prioritizing corporate profits above the public health.

The president issued two executive orders in April seeking to speed the production of pipelines across state and international borders, one of which targeted anti-pipeline states’ ability to limit fossil fuel infrastructure. Trump has also approved of the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite widespread protests of indigenous peoples, and the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was previously rejected by a US district judge.

“We’re outraged and appalled at the U.S. Department of Transportation proposal to further target and criminalize communities who are exercising their lawful right to protest, and demanding a halt to environmental extraction,” Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director for the climate activist group 350.org, told Politico.

Six states have implemented laws making it illegal to protest near pipelines, and others are in the process of sending bills to their governors. Texas’ state Senate recently passed a bill to make pipeline demonstrations a third degree felony punishable with up to 10 years in prison, and Louisiana passed a law to make pipeline protesters eligible for five years in prison with hard labor.

Some measures, such as a proposed bill in North Dakota that would make it legal for motorists to run over protesters, have failed to pass, while multiple others are being challenged by civil rights groups like the ACLU.

“Some of these regulatory proposals certainly appear to be less about actually protecting pipeline operations and more about intimidating anyone who opposes pipeline projects,” Elizabeth Klein, deputy director at New York University School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, told Politico.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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