Spurred by nationwide pipeline protests, Kansas lawmakers want to deter them further
Protests over pipelines in the past years, such as those over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016 or ongoing ones against the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, have driven the fossil fuel industry into action.
The American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers is pushing a bill beefing up criminal penalties for trespassing or damaging infrastructure facilities. Senate Bill 172 is more than halfway to becoming law, having had its hearing in the Kansas House on Wednesday.
"There are proper ways in our society to protest things," said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, who chairs the committee sponsoring the bill. "Peacefully protesting, not damaging property, like we've seen with many of the organized activities in the Pacific Northwest, that damaged billions of dollars of infrastructure and people's businesses."
In short, it is meant to send a clear message to supposedly violent climate protesters, despite conflicting reports that police and private security officers initiated some of the past aggression.
The bill has also taken on new light after this year's rolling blackouts, in which extreme cold temporarily took down energy infrastructure.
"As we well know, that critical infrastructure affects us all," Thompson said. "We had the arctic outbreak a week or so ago, and we were all impacted by the loss of electricity."
Senate Bill 172 would replace the crime of tampering with a pipeline with four different crimes ― trespassing, aggravated trespassing, criminal damage and aggravated criminal damage to a critical infrastructure facility. Such facilities include those associated with petroleum, electric, chemical, water, natural gas, broadband, railroads, trucking, steel or oil.
Trespassing a facility would be a Class A nonperson misdemeanor, while aggravated trespassing (with the intent to damage or tamper) would be a severity level 7 nonperson felony. Criminal damage would be a severity level 6 nonperson felony, and aggravated damage (with the intent to impede operations) is level 5.
Opponents worried the penalties were too harsh.
"What about those teenagers, the clever teen that goes up and writes a 'V' and 'I' on the Agra water tower?" said Zack Pistora, of the Kansas Sierra Club. "Should they be getting over a year, and a felony on their record, jail time?"
Others said the bill was a moot political point as there hasn't been a significant pipeline protest in the state. If anything, they said, it could chill free speech and deter even peaceful environmental protests.
The bill "is harmful because it strips us of our ability to let you know when something is not right. You're tying our hands and how we can communicate with you about injustices," said Adara Corbin, a young Kansan from the Wichita area. "People indigenous, by and large, alongside allies, assemble on critical infrastructure to protect their little means of livelihood, not to cry about nothing."
But lobbyists from the energy industry denied opposing First Amendment rights and turned the focus to security. Gavin Kreidler from AFPM pointed to incidents such as a hacker who gained access to and attempted to poison a Florida water treatment facility.
"There is probably not a citizen across the state of Kansas that's going to accidentally commit that crime of aggravated criminal damage that's reserved for that individual who wants to knock out that water treatment facility, disrupt or damage a pipeline ..." he said. "That penalty is reserved for the individual wants to create sustained damage ... not for someone who accidentally trespasses on a wind turbine."
Republican lawmakers, who make up the majority of the Legislature, agreed and saw no problem with the language.
"I don't see that the First Amendment gives us the right to trespass when we're protesting," said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, with Kansas Interfaith Action, said people who peacefully practice civil disobedience are prepared to take legal consequences, but here, the penalties are too extreme compared to the action.
"There's a difference between a fine or civil penalty and a seventh-degree nonperson felony," he said.
The bill is set to head to the House floor after passing in committee.
"We write the bills to try to prevent and create a deterrent for this sort of activity," Thompson said. "And I believe this bill is necessary in the current form that it's in."