24 states have considered harsher penalties for pipeline protesters since DAPL standoff

Republican lawmakers in Minnesota have introduced eight bills in the past five years that target pipeline protesters, but none have passed.

By: - September 15, 2022 3:25 pm

Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stands in front of a group of Line 3 protesters at an Enbridge pump station on Aug. 20, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

Lawmakers in two dozen states — including Minnesota — have taken up bills that ratchet up penalties for pipeline protesters since the 2016 standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock reservation.

The bills were drafted with the help of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council and succeeded in passing in 17 states controlled by Republicans, according to a new report by the progressive environmental lobbying group Climate Cabinet.

The laws are aimed at deterring people from disrupting “critical infrastructure,” with harsher penalties, including felony charges, for trespassing and vandalism. In some states, a felony charge can result in a $100,000 fine and 10 years in jail.

The laws are also meant to deter organizations from providing protesters with support by charging associated organizations with vicarious liability. If a protester is fined, a court can charge an organization associated with the individual ten times the protester’s fine. If a protester is arrested and found innocent, a pipeline company can still sue associated organizations.

The critical infrastructure bills that have been passed since 2017 are based on Oklahoma bills that were introduced and passed after protesters temporarily halted the Dakota Access Pipeline in late 2016.

Supporters of these bills say they keep protesters, first responders and workers safe from dangerous actions some activists take such as chaining themselves to vehicles and locking themselves inside pipes.

But opponents say the laws have a chilling effect on people’s First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

This is the rationale former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton used to veto the first critical infrastructure bill Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, introduced in Minnesota. Dayton said the bill was unnecessary and harmful to the public good.

Utke’s bill would have made damaging infrastructure with the intent to disrupt pipeline services a felony. Recruiting and educating individuals to trespass would also be a felony.

While eight so-called critical infrastructure bills have been introduced to the Minnesota Legislature since 2017, none have passed.

Trespassing on critical public service facilities, utilities or pipelines is already illegal in Minnesota, resulting in gross misdemeanor charges for pipeline protesters. This statute has not been revised since 2008 and does not charge protesters with felonies.

Meanwhile, tougher penalties on pipeline protesters have passed in South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

The possibility of these bills passing in Minnesota is slight with Democrats controlling the House and governorship, but the balance of power could change after November with all 201 legislative seats and the governorship up for grabs.

Even without the harsher penalties, activists say local prosecutors in Minnesota have been heavy-handed in charging protesters of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline with felonies, including for “attempted assisted suicide.”

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Maia Irvin
Maia Irvin

Maia is an intern at Minnesota Reformer. She is a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota and the editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Daily. She is originally from Austin, Minn.