How Corporate Influence over Politics Has Fueled Anti-Protest Laws
Gabrielle Colchete | Basav Sen
Environmental justice, racial justice, and Indigenous rights movements have gathered momentum in recent years, achieving crucial victories in efforts to halt or end extraction projects that endanger nearby residents.
Unfortunately, industries and lawmakers are now attempting to criminalize and muzzle these acts of civil protest — with disturbing implications not just for natural resource fights, but for a wide range of protest activities, including around racial justice and police brutality.
Increasingly, lawmakers aiming to stifle protests against oil and gas pipelines have turned to so-called “Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws. Under the premise of protecting infrastructure projects, these laws mandate harsh charges and penalties for exercising constitutional rights to freely assemble and to protest. Since 2017, they’ve cropped up in states all over the country.
This report examines anti-protest laws passed or introduced in three states — Louisiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia — and traces how corporate influence has spurred elected officials to attempt to use those laws to tamp down opposition to controversial oil and gas pipelines.
- Big polluters often locate their projects near highly impoverished areas and communities of color. In the Louisiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia projects we looked at, every single pipeline ran through communities with poverty rates well above the national average.
- For marginalized communities, protest is a last line of defense against pollution in their backyards. But “Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws conflate acts of civil disobedience with heinous, felony acts. Thirteen states have passed laws criminalizing protests against oil and gas projects since 2017.
- Fossil fuel companies have made significant investments in lobbying around these laws. All of the anti-protest bills in our case studies were authored or sponsored by legislators who have taken large campaign donations from oil and gas companies.
The most historically underrepresented communities — especially poor, Black, and Indigenous communities, alongside other communities of color — are disproportionately impacted by oil and gas pipeline expansion.
These populations have the least socioeconomic resources to challenge the fossil fuel giants building hazardous facilities in their backyards.
The demographics of communities surrounding the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, the Line 3 Pipeline in Minnesota, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia all follow this trend:
Louisiana: Energy Transfers’ Bayou Bridge Pipeline
- Although only 15 percent of the population residing in the census tracts along the Bayou Bridge Pipeline are Black, 27 percent of them live in poverty, which is more than twice the national poverty rate.
- Impoverished populations are most highly concentrated in the petrochemical hubs at the beginning and end of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline’s “phase 2” path: the Lake Charles area and a region overlapping Iberville, Ascension, and St. James Parishes that has been nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for its high number of cancer cases.
- Of all the areas along the pipeline’s path, the Tracts surrounding the Lake Charles and “Cancer Alley” petrochemical hubs also have the highest levels of exposure to harmful environmental toxins.
Minnesota: Enbridge Line 3
- The Line 3 pipeline cuts through dense clusters of Ojibwe and Chippewa Reservations, and directly passes through sacred wetlands where the Ojibwe harvest wild rice.
- 37 percent of the Indigenous population residing in the census tracts along Line 3 live below the poverty line, which is more than three times the national poverty rate.
West Virginia: Equitrans Mountain Valley Pipeline
- The Mountain Valley Pipeline cuts through rural Appalachian communities, with a 15 percent average poverty rate of the combined census tracts in the path, about 25 percent higher than the national poverty rate.
- Over half of the Tracts along the pipeline path have below-average life expectancy rates.
The fossil fuel industry has an army of lobbyists dedicated to garnering support.
Marathon Petroleum, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries are among the three most active companies involved in lobbying for the passage of “Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws nationwide.
Companies with vested interests in the adoption of these laws also make large contributions to the campaigns of the target state’s legislatures. All of the anti-protest bills introduced in the three state case studies have been authored or sponsored by one or more legislators who have taken large campaign donations from oil and gas companies:
- Louisiana’s active “Critical Infrastructure Protection” law, HB 727, was drafted by the President of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Tyler Gray.
- Representative Major Thibaut, who introduced HB 727, received $6,600 in campaign donations from oil and gas companies, the third highest of more than 40 industries he received contributions from.
- Governor John Bel Edwards received $94,750 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry prior to signing HB 727. Among the donors was Energy Transfer, owner of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.
- Representative Jerome Zeringue, who authored HB 197, took $12,066 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests, more than any other sector. The oil and gas interests on his donor list included Phillips 66 Company, a Bayou Bridge Pipeline stakeholder.
- Bill Ingebrigtsen and David J. Tomassoni, state senators who sponsored the anti-protest bill SF 2011, both receive regular contributions from the Northwest Petroleum PAC. Tomassoni also received contributions from several law firms with a significant clientele in the fossil fuel industry.
- At least two of the legislators who introduced HF 2966, the State House version of SF 2011, have also received large contributions from Northwest Petroleum PAC prior to the bill’s introduction. Representative Matt Grossell had also taken donations from the Koch Industries-owned Flint Hills Petroleum Refinery and an Enbridge lobbyist.
- Delegate John Kelly, the author of West Virginia’s active anti-protest law, HB 4615, received $1,000 from Dominion Energy, which at the time was attempting to complete the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
- Governor Jim Justice had taken $21,000 from the oil and gas industry prior to signing HB 4615. Some of his top donors included Marathon Petroleum, Dominion Energy, and EQT Corporation, the hydrocarbon company overseeing the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
History shows us that civil disobedience has been an indispensable tool for oppressed groups. This was true for the early 20th century labor movement, the 1960s Civil Rights era, and countless more examples.
The defeat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project was accomplished after a coalition of activists partook in acts of civil disobedience that would now be considered a felony in West Virginia.
Criminalizing protest elevates corporate interests above civil rights and civil liberties protected under the U.S. Constitution. And laws that inflict harsh penalties for protesting oil and gas projects can also impact ongoing national protests against police brutality, voter suppression, and other critical issues.
We need to protect the civil right to protest as well as level the playing field in our politics. To protect the health, safety, and First Amendment Rights of targeted communities, we recommend:
- Introducing a “Protest Bill of Rights” to counter existing or possible future “Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws by both decriminalizing civil disobedience and holding law enforcement accountable for misconduct against protesters.
- Strengthening federal environmental regulations that protect communities from hazardous infrastructure projects, and reinstating those that were weakened during the Trump administration.
- Requiring a National Environmental Justice Assessment (NEJA) for all new chemical or fossil fuel infrastructure projects. NEJA will evaluate how projects may impact the livelihoods, bodily health, and cultural resources of surrounding communities.
- Banning the appointment or hirings of former industry lobbyists at any government agencies that regulate those industries. For example, any individual who has ever been employed as a lobbyist for the chemical, fossil fuel, or industrial agriculture industry should be ineligible for appointments to the EPA.
- Creating a Matching Public Funds Program to level the playing field for grassroots candidates for election, and to combat corporate capture of state campaign financing.
For more detailed recommendations, see the full text version of our report.