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Energy & Environment

Pipeline Protesters Could Face 20 Years In Prison Under Trump Administration Proposal

The plan would stiffen penalties for disrupting oil and gas pipelines.


A protest encampment along the route of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota in 2017.

Protesters could face up to 20 years in prison for interfering with oil and gas pipelines under a new proposal from the Trump Administration.

The plan, if approved by Congress, would go beyond a similar crackdown Texas lawmakers approved during the recent state legislative session.

It's already against federal law to damage or destroy certain pipelines or pipeline facilities, namely those that are used in interstate or international commerce. But a proposal to Congress from the U.S. Department of Transportation would also make it illegal to vandalize or disrupt pipelines.

The possible 20-year sentence is tougher than the 10 years protesters could soon face under a Texas bill headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

West Texas activist Lori Glover was arrested in 2017 for blocking construction on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, a controversial natural gas project that drew protests inspired by the higher-profile fights going on at the same time over the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota.

Glover argues the efforts to crack down on these kinds of protests are too vague.

"It could be, oh, the worker looks at the banner for two seconds and thinks it's interesting and doesn't work, and so that's disruption," she said. "It's way over the top, and it's meant to totally squelch protest completely."

Oil and gas interests backed the measure Texas lawmakers recently approved, saying it was needed in part to protect pipelines from damage and to keep them safe.

James Mann, an attorney with the Texas Pipeline Association, testified in May that the industry was concerned about "valve turners," environmental activists who have tried to physically turn off pipelines in other parts of the country.

"I can't overemphasize how incredibly dumb and dangerous that is," Mann said.

The Trump Administration's pitch to Congress is part of a much broader proposal aimed at enhancing pipeline safety across the country.

Texas isn't the only state that's moved to stiffen penalties on "direct action" protests in recent years, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has been pushing states to adopt model legislation on the issue.

Critics maintain the laws are overly-broad and stifle free speech.

"It's meant to choke out dissent in a time when expanding fossil fuel extraction and consumption will only hurl us perilously to extinction," Glover said.

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