Texas Pipeline Protesters May Face Up To 10 Years In Prison

Ever since last September, Angeline Cheek was preparing for disaster.

The native American organizer from the Fort Peck reservation in Montana has fears that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could break and spill, destroy her tribe’s water, and desecrate sacred Native American sites. But environmental catastrophe is not the most immediate threat.

The government has characterized pipeline opponents like her as “extremists” and violent criminals and warned of potential “terrorism”, according to recently released records. The documents, revealed last year, suggested that police were set to launch an aggressive responses to possible Keystone protests.

And now, that threat to what some have dubbed as "eco-terrorism" has become reality, at least in one US state. According to Bloomberg, oil pipeline protesters who interrupt operations or damage equipment could face up to 10 years in prison under legislation approved by Texas lawmakers.

Under the bill that was approved by both chambers of the Texas legislature, protesters found guilty of halting service or delaying construction of an oil or natural gas pipeline could be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years of incarceration. That’s on a par with the sentences handed down to drive-by shooters who fail to hit their mark according to Bloomberg.

The measure, which was originally authored by Republican Representative Chris Paddie, cleared the Texas House on May 7 and the Senate on Monday.

The delighted Texas Oil & Gas Association applauded the bill's passage and said the bill provides property owners and pipeline companies “greater protections against intentional damage, delays, and stoppages caused by illegal activity.”

The bill still needs Governor Greg Abbott’s signature to become law, although that is only a formality.

Predictably, environmental groups, meanwhile, called the measure an assault on free speech. “The bill was never about safety and security,” Cyrus Reed, interim director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said in an email. “It was about silencing protesters trying to protect their water and land.”

That... and also preventing rampant vandalism. Other projects, including Energy Transfer LP’s Dakota Access crude pipeline and EQM Midstream Partners LP’s Mountain Valley gas conduit, have also drawn on-the-ground protests. Even in Texas, which is considered friendlier to the oil and gas industry, activists have staged opposition to the Trans-Pecos pipeline, which runs through the Big Bend region in the western part of the state.

Texas may be the first, but it will hardly be the last: as noted above, states have long been taking action to prepare for pipeline protests as environmental groups increasingly target infrastructure as part of their opposition to fossil fuels, becoming true "eco-terrorists" in the process; there should thus be little surprise that officials are cracking down.

As Bloomberg notes, while South Dakota has yet to pass a similar crackdown on eco protesters, earlier this year the state advanced legislation to allow the state to seek money from pipeline companies to help cover expenses related to protests. That bill aims to ready South Dakota for the contentious Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, which is held up in court but recently scored a new presidential permit from the Trump administration.