Prove your humanity

This post was updated January 7, 2021 to include comments from Ted Auch of Fractracker Alliance, and Ohio Senator Frank Hoagland.

People who protest oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure in Ohio could face stiffer penalties, under a bill passed by the Ohio House December 17. It was previously approved in the state Senate.

The bill creates heavier penalties for trespass and tampering of critical infrastructure like oil, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, and railroads. 

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss the story with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

Tampering with these types of facilities could mean a third degree felony charge, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to three years in prison, more severe than trespass charges at other locations.

This is needed, according to Republican Representative Jamie Callender, who spoke on the House floor Thursday, because of the costly damage that can be done to this type of infrastructure.

“Here in Ohio we didn’t have any way to deal with that, other than the normal petty trespass and vandalism,” he said, “which is not enough to cover the damage that is done in these instances.” 

More than 170 Ohioans previously testified against the measure. One concern is that the language in it is too vague. For example, to “tamper” is defined in the bill as changing the physical location or condition of the property.

“So if you put a garage sale sign up on a telephone pole, have you physically changed the condition of the property?,” said Democratic Representative Kent Smith, before the Ohio House voted.

Other opponents say this bill is part of an effort to shut down protests, especially against pipelines and energy development.

According to Ted Auch of FracTracker Alliance, the Ohio bill looks a lot like the template created by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group, mostly funded by corporations that creates model legislation for state lawmakers. Sixteen states, including West Virginia, have passed this kind of legislation, according to a legal group tracking these types of laws.

Auch said pipeline companies and others in the energy industry don’t want people protesting their projects. “So [energy industry companies] want to put a chilling effect on people before they even consider doing something,” he said. 

The effort by ALEC started in response to the 2016 protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, according to Auch. During that well-publicized ten month protest, law enforcement used tear gas and water cannons, and injured many water rights activists.

Auch said that was a “PR nightmare” for police and energy companies. ALEC’s model legislation, like the bill in Ohio, create higher penalties and jail terms for anyone who goes near a pipeline, “And then what that allows you to do is to frame any resistance hereafter as just a bunch of radical, left environmental groups,” he said.

The bill also targets organizations, like environmental groups, if they provide assistance to protestors who may be arrested under this law. If a group is seen to encourage trespassing, by providing food and water, medical care or transportation, it could potentially face penalties up to 10 times those levied against individuals. Some fear that even chanting “stop the pipeline” could be construed as encouraging damage to critical infrastructure.

Ohio Senator Frank Hoagland, who introduced the bill, did not respond to the question of whether this bill was drawn from ALEC model legislation. In an email statement, he said it is important to protect energy, communications and other facilities from destructive acts that can impact communities’ ability to function.

“Citizens should feel safe in voicing their beliefs and I feel a strong obligation to create a secure environment in which they may do so,” he said.

The Ohio bill has passed the House and Senate, and is currently on Governor DeWine’s desk.