With the possibility of pipeline protests looming in Minnesota, lawmakers are considering a new felony offense for anyone training or recruiting protesters who damage “critical infrastructure.”
Supporters of the legislation say it’s necessary to bolster public safety for pipelines, power lines, oil refineries, railroads, airports and other important facilities. Opponents say the legislation is an overreach intended to chill public protests.
Either way, bills pending in Minnesota are similar to legislation in at least five other states. They come amid a protest movement against oil pipelines, particularly the construction of new ones — like Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 replacement across northern Minnesota.
The legislation would penalize “whoever intentionally recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires [or] counsels” somebody else to commit property damage on a pipeline or other “critical public service facility.” Such an act would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine up to $20,000.
“We can’t have people instructing people on how to destroy critical infrastructure,” said Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, the main author of the House bill. “It’s like aiding and abetting.”
Both the Senate and House legislation also would impose civil liability on those who train and aid trespassers who damage property. The bills would extend civil liability, not just criminal responsibility, directly to trespassers, too.
“Misguided is a very mild term” to describe the bills, said John Gordon, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU. “They are trying to broaden guilt by association,” when there are already Minnesota laws that deal with conspiracy and aiding the commission of a crime.
“They are clearly trying to do something here that discourages people from exercising their right to protest and chill freedom of speech,” Gordon said.
Environmental groups opposing the legislation concur, as does organized labor through the AFL-CIO.
Smith said the bills don’t abridge free-speech rights: “This is not meant to silence protesters.”
The legislation last week passed House and Senate committees and will move to the floor of each chamber. Authors of the House bill are all Republicans. Three of the five Senate sponsors are Republicans; the other two are DFL senators Tom Bakk, the minority leader from Cook, and David Tomassoni of Chisholm.
The legislation is supported by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. According to the latter’s website, Enbridge is not a member, though Koch Industries is. Koch, through its Flint Hills Resources subsidiary, owns a large oil refinery in Rosemount.
The backdrop of the legislation is protests both large and small.
Smith noted the arrest of climate-change activists who in October 2016 disrupted the operation of two Enbridge oil pipelines northwest of Bemidji, Minn. Two members of a group called Climate Direct Action broke into a fenced area to close the pipeline’s emergency valves. They waited to be arrested.
The pair was charged with criminal damage to “public service facilities,” as well as aiding and abetting the same crime — both felonies that are punishable with up 10 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine. Two other protesters who filmed them face lesser charges. Their trial is pending.
In the past couple of years, there have been mass protests against new pipelines in several states, the most notable in North Dakota over the Dakota Access pipeline.
The pipeline crosses beneath a lake that provides drinking water to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation. Thousands of American Indian and environmental activists rallied for weeks in 2016 to support tribal water rights — and to halt construction of the pipeline.
“We saw what happened in North Dakota and we have a big pipeline project coming up [in Minnesota],” said Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, the main sponsor of the Senate bill.
At Standing Rock, “we saw people coming from all over the U.S. and create havoc,” Utke said. “We put law enforcement in danger.”
Tara Houska, national campaign director for the indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth, said that “people who were accused of unlawful things [at Standing Rock] were brought into the legal system that already exists.”
Hundreds of people were arrested and charged with trespassing at Standing Rock, including Houska, who was not convicted.
“If someone chooses in any type of protest to engage in property destruction, they are liable for that, but [the Minnesota] legislation could extend liability to people who are just protesting,” she said.
Protests appear likely in northern Minnesota if the state’s Public Utilities Commission votes in favor of Enbridge’s new Line 3 pipeline, a $2.6 billion project. Line 3 is one of six Enbridge pipelines that cross the state, ferrying Canadian oil to a big terminal in Superior, Wis.
Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge says the new pipeline is a necessary safety improvement; its current Line 3 is aging and corroding. Environmental groups and Indian tribes that oppose the pipeline say it will open a new region of Minnesota to possible environmental degradation from oil spills.
Since Standing Rock, several states have looked to expand laws regarding pipeline protests.
“Oklahoma was the first place a law passed, and then [the Oklahoma law] was picked up as model legislation by ALEC,” said Jennifer Hensley, state lobbying and advocacy director for the Sierra Club, an environmental group.
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative policy group whose donors include Charles and David Koch, brothers who own most of Kansas-based Koch Industries.
Bills with similarities to the ALEC model have been introduced in five states this year — Minnesota, Iowa, Wyoming, Louisiana and Ohio, Hensley said. In Wyoming, legislation was vetoed by the governor.
In Iowa, legislation has been passed by both the state’s Senate and House and awaits the governor’s signature.