Oil Lobbyists Attempt to Influence Pipeline Safety Legislation to Further Criminalize Pipeline Protests
A number of legislators have been receptive to lobbying efforts by the Association of Oil Pipelines, including Reps. Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.
Protestors gathered at the Minnesota capitol and marched in downtown St. Paul to protest the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia
The oil and gas industry is seeking to harness must-pass federal safety legislation to enact sweeping provisions that would criminalize activism against pipelines. The measures would make it a felony for individuals to tamper with pipeline facilities or obstruct pipeline construction, documents obtained by The Intercept and Documented show.
The provisions expand the scope of criminal liability for those found to be “interfering with the operation” of any pipeline facility, including infrastructure that is under construction, according to a copy of proposed language offered to legislators by industry officials. If passed, those convicted of interfering with pipeline operations could face up to 20 years in prison.
The draft language was provided to legislators by the Association of Oil Pipelines, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C., that represents Koch Industries, Kinder Morgan, TransCanada, Phillips 66, Energy Transfer Partners, Enbridge, Plains All American, and other major oil and gas pipeline interests.
A number of legislators, including Reps. Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., have been receptive to AOPL’s efforts to attempt to tuck criminal penalty provisions into the federal pipeline safety reauthorization legislation, which Congress is seeking to pass before the current authorization expires on September 30.
The legislative gambit is the latest in a two-year effort by oil and gas companies to use enhanced police powers to prevent another wave of protests akin to the demonstrations around the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. In the industry’s view, the strengthened criminal penalties are necessary to prevent potentially dangerous tampering with the operation of pipeline infrastructure, including manipulation of valves or other forms of physical destruction.
In states across the country, similar laws, also crafted directly by oil and gas interests, have been enacted to increase penalties for obstructing pipeline construction or, in some cases, to even create new criminal penalties for those “conspiring” with perpetrators.
Last month, The Intercept obtained a leaked recording revealing a prominent oil and gas lobbyist touting his role in crafting a template version of the criminalization bill used as the basis for nearly every new state-level law designed to penalize pipelines protests.
Now, those efforts appear to be targeting Capitol Hill to amend federal law. In early June, the Trump administration’s Department of Transportation released its own federal pipeline safety legislation, introduced in the Senate, that mirrored industry demands to create criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison for “inhibiting the operation” of an oil or gas pipeline.
Newly obtained documents show that AOPL has pushed aggressively to also shape two pipeline safety bills moving through Congress in the House of Representatives.
In June, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, attempted to push forward with criminalization provisions on its pipeline safety bill, H.R. 3432, but were rebuffed by Democrats.
An update on legislation, sent in August to oil and gas lobbyists, notes that the H.R. 3432, failed to include the oil pipeline lobbyist demand for criminalization provisions, in part due to opposition from Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a senior lawmaker on the committee, along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, meanwhile, has been more receptive to industry concerns. Over the summer, committee leaders circulated a draft of another pipeline safety bill in discussion among lawmakers. AOPL lobbyists noted that Lipinski, a senior lawmaker on the Transportation Committee who is generally regarded as one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus, has been “open to legislative action to deter attacks on pipeline facilities and workers.”
AOPL has rallied its corporate members to exert pressure on Lipinski as its key champion for House Democrats to include the criminalization provisions. In an alert sent to other lobbyists, AOPL encouraged direct outreach to Lipinski and Alex Beckmann, the Lipinski staffer working primarily on pipeline issues, to remind his office about the importance of including the criminal penalty provisions. Bost, a senior GOP member of the Transportation Committee, is referred to as the industry’s “House champion” on the push to include new criminal penalties.
Lipinski, a member of the business-friendly Blue Dog caucus member, is facing a rematch in the primary next year against Marie Newman, a progressive challenger. The Illinois incumbent has fundraised heavily from the oil and gas sector over the course of his career, including corporate PAC donations this cycle from AOPL member companies Plains All American and Phillips 66.
“Congressman Lipinski would never support legislation that takes away the First Amendment rights of protesters,” Phil Davidson, a spokesperson for Lipinski, told The Intercept in a statement. “Labor and industry have approached the congressman on the issue of safety in light of some incidents that have occurred. The congressman has made clear that while maintaining safety is critical, he would not be supportive of anything that takes away the legitimate right to protest.”
In an email, John Stoody, AOPL vice president for government and public relations, underscored his belief that the criminalization provisions sought by industry are “narrowly targeted to specific dangerous activities threatening working and public safety” and include “specific First Amendment reference protecting free speech and right of assembly.”
Stoody noted that the industry still hopes that “Reps. Rush and Ocasio-Cortez would join pipeline operators in opposing the shooting, torching or potentially blowing up of pipeline facilities” and confirmed that Bost and Flores are the industry’s champions in advancing their interests. The pipeline industry also shared its legislative proposal with Lipinski, Stoody added.
Meanwhile, advocates are fighting to resist the measures, which they say are part of a larger strategy to intimidate and imprison activists seeking to prevent the spread of oil and gas infrastructure. Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union won a major victory, securing a federal court injunction against the industry-crafted law in South Dakota that criminalized “riot-boosting” protests of pipeline infrastructure. The Center for Constitutional Rights has challenged a similar industry-backed law in Louisiana.
“It is deeply troubling to learn that the House of Representatives may be engaged in a bipartisan effort to include language like this in federal law,” said Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, citing recent legislation designed to counter the demonstrations at Standing Rock.
“Proponents of these anti-protest measures claim that they are intended to ensure safety,” Ruane added. “However, there are already laws on the books for that. These measures are clearly intended to chill the speech of environmental activists, Native American tribes, and their allies in the fight to protect their lands and water.”
Greenpeace, too, has tracked the spread of similar industry-authored proposals as they have been introduced in more than two dozen state capitols. Connor Gibson, a research specialist with Greenpeace, echoed Ruane’s concerns.
“Oil companies are blatantly attempting to ghostwrite federal law, and they are making sure that peaceful protest activity would be punished in the same manner that acts of violence or sabotage would be,” Gibson said.