Members of Frack Free Denton Adam Briggle, Niki Chochrek and Tara Hunter were arrested June 1, 2015 for blocking the entrance to the Vantage Energy drill site in Denton. Courtesy of Frack Free Denton.
UPDATED May 24, 2019
Texans thought we had the right to nonviolent civil disobedience, along with the rest of the U.S. It's a right asserted as far back as the Boston Tea Party, then later in the civil rights and other movements. But a harsh anti-protest bill carrying second-degree felony penalties, House Bill 3557, was approved by the Texas House May 6. On May 20, it was amended by Senate committee, lessening some charges, and passed the Senate 25 - 6.
Titled “The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” and introduced by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), the bill was framed as protection for operations such as oil and gas pipelines, chemical manufacturers and industrial-scale animal feeding operations - all sites of recent serious environmental incidents - as well as a long list of other basic infrastructure facilities.
UPDATE 5/24: The amended bill went back to the House and the House declined to accept the Senate's changes. Today, the bill will be taken to a joint conference committee for possible restoration of the House’s across-the-board felony charges and a final vote. Environmentalists are urging Texans to contact committee members to protect peaceful nonviolent protest. EMAIL JOINT COMMITTEE MEMBERS HERE.
HB 3557's penalties take aim at actions ranging from “impairs or interrupts operation” to ”intentionally or knowingly destroys” a facility. Not only those apprehended would be liable to prosecution, but also their employers or organizations to which they belong.
“There are already laws on the books against trespassing and destruction of property,” said Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment.
“This is an attempt by pipeline companies, factory farms and other big polluting industry to silence the public that oppose their operations,” Schneider viewed the industry motivation behind the bill’s purported goal. “The bill is a Texas version of model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and other oil and gas-related demonstrations in recent years.”
ALEC is largely composed of lobbyists for such firms as Koch Industries, owned by the right-wing billionaire Koch Brothers, along with Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Telecom and more. It serves as a legislation mill that churns out model bills financed by these special interests and distributes the texts to state and local governments.
While bill research can be a valuable service acknowledged by overworked officials and their staffs, many such think tanks have axes to grind.
Frack Free Denton protesters June 2015 at the Vantage Energy drill site in Denton.
The range of opposition speakers at the Senate committee hearing demonstrated the many populations who could be affected by the bill. They were rural landowners, representatives of Native Americans societies, and social justice defenders and environmental activists. Rancher Eleanor Fairchild recounted her previous jailing, after opposing tree cutting in violation of a signed agreement, by the pipeline company who held an easement on her land.
Schneider had previously pointed out the bill’s other potential destructive applications, in summary:
Pipeline construction has impacted Native nations “whose sovereignty has been violated or ignored by regulatory processes. Defenders of sacred spaces could face prison time…These constructions often threaten to disturb sacred burial sites and disinter their ancestors - a gross insult to their religious practices…an attack on religious liberty.”
“The bill makes employers liable for their employees’ actions. The bill could impose liability on a corporation or association whose employees participate in a protest punished under the law…activist employers could be forced to avoid action on these issues.”
“Journalists who wish to cover such protests could face resistance from editors and publishers...”
A few prominent arrests for public speech could chill others’ protest against projects they find harmful. “The legislation is an attack on free speech, and there is less certainty that courts will defend the First Amendment than…at times in the past.”
“The bill contributes to over-criminalization…HB 3557 threatens to add new criminal justice burdens for offenses already adequately punished under the law.”
Schneider stressed the necessity of public speech in Texas, where pipeline safely is inadequately protected:
“The Legislature is doing little to address the dangers of midstream pipelines. Nationally since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries , and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion. Pipeline incidents occurred at a rate of 1.6 per day nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.”
Schneider, who led opposition to HB 3557 and Senate counterpart SB 1993, now dead, judged opposition efforts thus far as “making a significant change” to HB 3557, but still limited gains in adverse legislation. Those were:
No felonies for actions that impair or interrupt operations of a critical infrastructure facility. Instead, a Class A misdemeanor, up to a year in county jail and a $10,000 fine, increased from $4,000.
Presence on a property “with the intent to impair or interrupt operations:” Class A misdemeanor, $4,000 fine.
“It does not pose nearly the threat that it did," she added.
However, a third-degree felony still applies to damage to critical infrastructure. In addition, fines of up to $500,000 can still be charged to corporations or associations if their employees or members are found guilty of destroying critical infrastructure.
Cyrus Reed, Interim director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, said it took a coordinated effort by environmentalists across the state to counter the bill's attack on peaceful protest.
"The powerful oil and gas lobby typically gets what it wants out of the Texas Legislature, so it was harder than it needed to be to convince our lawmakers that someone chaining themselves to a tree at a pipeline construction site is not the same as destroying a pipeline," he said, in a release on Monday. "I just wish the same concern for safety and security [that] several lawmakers showed transferred to bills that would have addressed the lethal but preventable accidents, leaks, and explosions we see in Texas year after year.”
Schneider said by phone on Tuesday, that over the course of the bill's progress, people rallied from all parts of the state to defend their right to protest.
"It's still a bad bill but I feel good about the work we did to trim this bill's sails," said Schneider. "We had over 3,000 messages sent to state legislators that we know of."
Texas State Bill Lookup on HB 3557
Legiscan info on HB 3557