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ENVIRONMENT

Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Criminalizes Pipeline Protests

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. A new Wisconsin bill effectively bans pipeline protests in the state. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Wisconsin is now the 10th state to pass an ALEC-inspired “critical infrastructure protection” bill, and other states are considering similar proposals to ban pipeline protests.

Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed a bill into law on Wednesday making it a felony for protestors to trespass on property used by fossil fuel corporations. Critics, including many of Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes, argue that the new law infringes on the constitutional rights of peaceful protestors and represents the broader corporate takeover of the American government. The bill is considered an attempt to halt pipeline protests like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that captured headlines in 2016 and 2017.

The rule was inspired by Canadian-based gas company Enbridge, whose Line 5 pipeline passes through the Bad River Reservation of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The tribe sued the company in July to move the pipeline away from one of their water sources, arguing the pipeline “represents an existential threat to the Band, its Reservation resources, and its way of life.”

Because of the new law, peaceful indigenous and environmental protestors opposed to the Enbridge pipeline can now be charged with a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

“It provides these illegally operating companies with the right to basically charge someone with a felony for being on their land,” Philomena Kebec, a citizen of Bad River and former tribal prosecutor, told Grist. “And this could be an Indian person on Indian land where the company is illegally trespassing.”

Critics note that Evers’ bill matches “critical infrastructure protection” bills designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Koch-backed organization that serves as a meeting place for corporate lobbyists and state legislature to craft “model bills” that benefit the group’s donors. More than 98% of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations.

To further entrench corporate power, ALEC has targeted state legislatures in recent years to pass right-to-work laws and other measures that restrict unionization. Numerous Wisconsin legislators have ties to the organization.

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DemocracyNow! notes that the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that serves fossil fuel multinationals in like Exxon, was also involved in the bill’s passage. The American Petroleum Institute gave ALEC $50,000 last year.

Wisconsin is now the 10th state to pass an ALEC-inspired “critical infrastructure protection” bill, and other states are considering similar proposals to effectively ban pipeline protests. Notably, the Trump administration proposed making pipeline protestors liable for up to 20 years in prison earlier this year.

Environmentalists Condemn Pipeline Protest Bill

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, and 34 other groups urged the governor to reject the new law in a letter, arguing it infringes on constitutional rights and will disproportionately impact minorities. “The ACLU of Wisconsin will closely monitor the enforcement of this law and oppose any attempts to infringe on the freedom of speech or criminalize people for making their voices heard,” said Chris Ott, ACLU of Wisconsin executive director.

“Governor Evers had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership on climate change, and he opted not to,” said Elizabeth Ward of Sierra Club-Wisconsin. “The need to stand up for water protectors, Tribal members, and landowners with oil pipelines running through their property has been crystal clear with the recent pipeline fights in Wisconsin and around the country. It’s disappointing that the governor was unwilling to do so and instead supported this bill that helps the fossil fuel industry continue to lock us into a climate catastrophe.”

“Special protections designed to protect the energy industry from protests, including nonviolent civil disobedience, do nothing to protect the public or worker safety,” wrote 14 national groups including Greenpeace and the National Lawyers Guild in another letter protesting the law and requesting a veto. “They do threaten our democracy by chilling dissent.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a staff writer and assistant editor at Citizen Truth.

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