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Greenpeace: anti-protest laws protect US oil companies

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Picture: Jason Reed / REUTERS file / Taken August 30, 2011 – US actress Daryl Hannah is arrested as she joins a protest against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, outside the White House in Washington, August 30, 2011. Fossil fuel companies have contributed millions of dollars to legislators who have sponsored anti-protest laws, that shield oil and gas infrastructure in the US, a new report says.

By Olivia Rosane

In the seven years since the massive protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, the fossil fuel industry and their allies in politics and law enforcement have been hard at work to prevent a repeat: Around 60 percent of oil and gas infrastructure in the US is now shielded by anti-protest laws that make direct action much riskier for activists and frontline communities who want to protect their local and global home from dangerous pollution, a new Greenpeace report has found.

The report, Dollars vs Democracy 2023: Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Playbook to Suppress Protest and Dissent in the United States, reveals that fossil fuel companies made up nine of the 10 most determined lobbyists for anti-protest measures since 2017 and that 25 oil, gas, coal, and energy companies contributed more than $5 million to legislators who sponsored these laws.

“Our current climate emergency is a direct result of the oil and gas industry’s operations,” Greenpeace US executive director Ebony Twilley Martin said in a statement. “Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable. Oil and gas companies are finding new and dangerous ways to delay the transition to clean energy and protect their own profits.”

The oil and gas industry has played an outsize role in the spread of so-called “critical infrastructure” laws. These laws impose extra penalties for campaigners who trespass on the property of pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, despite the fact that states already have anti-trespass laws on the books.

In 2017, Marathon Petroleum and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers pushed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to adopt an anti-fossil fuel protest measure as one of its “model bills”. ALEC is a shadowy network of corporations and legislators that prepares bill templates aligned with business interests that can be easily spread from state to state.

Since 2017, 18 states have passed critical infrastructure laws that now protect about 60 percent of oil and gas infrastructure, and four other states have passed slightly watered-down versions of these laws. In 2023 alone, legislators have introduced 23 anti-protest bills in 15 states, and four states have passed anti-fossil fuel protest laws.

North Carolina passed the most draconian of the year. It classifies trespassing on an energy facility as a felony punishable with up to two years in prison and attempting to “obstruct, impede, or impair the services of transmissions of an energy facility” as felonies that carry up to 19 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Oregon, Utah, and Georgia also passed more limited anti-protest laws.

The oil, gas, and coal industry has financed the spread of these laws: Nine of the top 10 lobbyists for these bills from 2017 to 2023 were Marathon, ExxonMobil, Enbridge, TC Energy, Koch Industries, Chevron, Energy Transfer, Williams Companies, and Valero. In addition, 25 fossil fuel companies gave $5 billion to legislators pushing these laws, with the top five donors being Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Marathon Petroleum, BNSF Railway and Koch Industries.

“It is time to stop pretending that the fossil fuel industry is so vital to our national interest that it needs to be protected from any and all criticism; nothing could be further from the truth.”

“The fossil fuel industry has lobbied for these extreme anti-protest laws to shut down criticism of them,” Nicholas Robinson, senior legal advisor at the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, said in a statement.

“Climate change is an urgent challenge and all Americans, including the communities most impacted by these fossil fuel projects, have a right to have their voice heard, not silenced, at this critical moment for the planet.”

Pushing anti-protest laws isn’t the only way that the fossil fuel industry has tried to stifle protest. It also relies on a tactic known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Almost three-quarters of the 116 SLAPP lawsuits filed since 2010 came from companies that also supported anti-protest laws, among them Energy Transfer, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy Corporation, Chevron, and TransCanada.

“We at Greenpeace US are all too familiar with these tactics,” Twilley Martin explained in a statement. “We are facing a $300 million lawsuit from Energy Transfer, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer alleges that we organised the massive Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. They targeted Greenpeace as a proxy for the movement as a whole. Now, the industry is watching our lawsuit — and others — to see how effective this tactic will be in silencing protest.”

Other ways that the fossil fuel industry quashes protest include having their private security collaborate with law enforcement — sometimes using physically harmful tactics against demonstrators — and by working to depict land defenders and environmental activists as radicals or terrorists.

To push back against the oil-and-gas-funded attack on protest and free speech, Greenpeace offers four policy recommendations:

  1. Repeal anti-protest laws, pass anti-SLAPP laws, and pass resolutions reaffirming the right to dissent.
  2. Recommit to protecting Indigenous sovereignty and compensate Indigenous campaigners for human rights abuses.
  3. Act to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and pass the Climate Equity Act and the Environmental Justice for All Act.
  4. Stop using anti-terrorism efforts as an excuse to spy on protesters and pass laws protecting them from aggressive police tactics like spraying water cannons.

“It is time to stop pretending that the fossil fuel industry is so vital to our national interest that it needs to be protected from any and all criticism; nothing could be further from the truth,” Greenpeace US senior researcher Andres Chang, who wrote the report, said in a statement.

“Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities are getting hit by climate change and polluting oil and gas projects first and hardest, and their voices need to be heard, not silenced.”

Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams

This article was first published on Common Dreams