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A statute aimed at suppressing protests against oil and gas pipelines has been signed into law in Oklahoma, as a related bill advances through the state legislature. The two bills are part of a nationwide trend in anti-protest laws meant to significantly increase legal penalties for civil disobedience.
The Oklahoma law signed this week is unique, however, in its broad targeting of groups “conspiring” with protesters accused of trespassing. It takes aim at environmental organizations Republicans have blamed for anti-pipeline protests that have become costly for local governments.
The statute Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin approved Wednesday was rushed into immediate effect under a provision that declared the situation “an emergency.” It will dramatically increase penalties against protesters who trespass on property containing a “critical infrastructure facility.”
A section of the law defining “critical infrastructure” includes various types of fossil fuel facilities. Oklahoma is a center of the oil and gas industry and home of the self-styled “Pipel ine Crossroads of the World” in Cushing. The state has seen a dramatic increase in earthquakes since the nation’s fracking boom began, as companies began pumping wastewater produced from hydraulic fracturing underground. The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association is a supporter of the legislation.
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed injection data from the most active disposal wells in the area where the 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit last September.
They found that there had been a sudden and dramatic increase in the amount of wastewater injected in the first half of 2013 at some of the wells.
That contributed "a fair amount of stress on the fault and would have accelerated the natural faulting process significantly," said Andrew Barbour, a USGS geophysicist who led the study.
A second bill, passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Thursday, would permit “vicarious liability” for groups that “compensate” protesters accused of trespassing. The bill’s author reportedly called it a response to the Dakota Access pipeline protests, aimed directly at organizers fighting to stop the Diamond pipeline, a project of Valero and All American Pipeline that would transport oil from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Protests against the pipeline have already begun and construction is scheduled for completion before the end of the year.
The trope of the “professional protester” has long been a talking point for those who disagree with participants’ politics. It was used widely this year by Republicans frustrated by a series of anti-Trump protests after his election and inauguration.
It was also used against demonstrators involved in massive actions in defiance of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, that were violently repressed by police. North Dakota governor Doug Burgum is seeking $38 million in compensation from the federal government for costs associated with the police response and with cleaning up resistance camps whose residents were evicted in February.
Doug Parr has represented numerous environmental activists in Oklahoma protest cases. In an interview with the Intercept the attorney noted the liability bill’s loose wording.
“Say they lock themselves to a piece of construction equipment, and a claim can be made that there were damages from that trespass,” Parr said.
“Does this statute create a civil action for a pipeline company to then go after a person or organization that posted bond or helped pay for a lawyer for that civil disobedience?”
Parr said the law amplifies risks for groups that organize protest actions, who can’t always account for the diversity of tactics used by attendees. “Suppose an organization decides they want to support a perfectly legal, no civil disobedience, action,” he said.
“Somebody in that crowd, who has come to the protest at the request of that organization, then jumps the fence, and runs in there, and spray-paints on a storage tank, ‘This equipment causes earthquakes. Shut it down.’ … These statutes could be used to attack that organization and impose financial liability on them.”
“I don’t think that when we’re talking about life, not only the life of our children and the life of our brothers and sisters, but when we’re talking about life itself, all living things on the planet, that state borders are going to deter or stop anybody from going to try to protect a body of water.”
As of April 2, Common Dreams counted 19 anti-protest bills across the U.S. Bills in Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota were directly aimed at activists attempting to block oil and gas infrastructure. Other laws, in places like Minnesota, responded to protests in 2015 and 2016 that blocked roads and highways after police killings of black men and women in various cities.
Bridgwater said his biggest concern is reserved for citizens who might think twice before attending a protest. “We see all of these bills as nothing more than corporate America being fearful of how successful the Standing Rock protests were.”