Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin signed into law a bipartisan proposal to make it a state felony to trespass on or damage oil or gas pipelines or chemical, renewable fuel, or water infrastructure.
The law expands on and clarifies a 2015 state law that made it a felony to intentionally trespass or cause damage to the property of an “energy provider,” by updating the definition of energy provider to include any person or company operating a delivery or transportation system for gas, oil, or petroleum; for refined petroleum products; for renewable fuels; or for chemical production.
Under the new law, protestors who trespass upon or cause damage to “critical infrastructure,” such as transmission lines, fencing posts, and pipelines, face fines of $10,000 and up to six years in prison.
No Threat to Speech
The chief opponents of the legislation were the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk Nation, and the Sierra Club, who claimed the bill stifles their rights to free speech and lawful protest.
Supporters of the new law—including Republican and Democratic lawmakers, organized labor unions, utilities, the state chamber of commerce, and trade groups representing farmers, restaurants, and the logging and paper industries, among others—disagreed, noting it does not apply to otherwise lawful assembly or speech such as monitoring compliance with various laws, picketing, and union organizing.
When signing the law, Evers, a Democrat, attempted to assure Native American groups who have opposed pipelines that the law would not stifle their legally protected speech.
“I have said—and reaffirm today—that our Tribal Nations deserve to have a voice in the policies and legislation that affect indigenous persons and our state,” Evers said in a statement. “I expect that moving forward members of the Legislature will engage in meaningful dialogue and consultation with Wisconsin’s Tribal Nations before developing and advancing policies that directly or indirectly affect our Tribal Nations and indigenous persons in Wisconsin.”
Violent Protest Sparked Reform
The 2015 law and its new expansion were lawmakers’ responses to violent protests around the nation, including an incident in 2013 in Penokee Hills, Wisconsin during which masked individuals screamed profanities at mine workers, slashed the tires of their personal and company vehicles, stole equipment, and threw tools into the woods. The self-proclaimed “peaceful” protestors also wrecked the hydraulic controls of machinery and destroyed work undertaken to prevent erosion.
The broad, bipartisan legislative support for this bill stems from recognition of the harm done by these extreme and destructive protests, says Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute of Public Policy.
“We respect a person’s right to protest in Wisconsin and their First Amendment right to speak their minds, but we do not believe free speech means you can do damage to private property or critical infrastructure,” Healy said. “Wisconsinites realize we need a modern, reliable, and safe energy infrastructure system to heat our homes in the winter and to keep our businesses running.”
Nine other states have enacted similar laws in recent years to protect energy infrastructure from increasingly frequent, sometimes violent protests.
Duggan Flanakin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.