A guard stands at the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota in 2016. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Industry supporters turned out en masse at a legislative committee meeting Friday to support a bill that will impose severe penalties on protesters and anyone else who damages or interferes with “critical infrastructure” such as a pipeline or a mine.

The measure would impose long prison sentences on anyone who “impedes or inhibits” operation of critical industrial infrastructure and make organizations supporting them vulnerable to $1 million fines.

Opponents say the legislation threatens American democratic traditions of free speech and peaceable assembly. Protesters historically have disrupted business operations as they contested social and economic conditions.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leland Christensen (R-Alta), the lead sponsor of SF-74 Crimes against critical infrastructure, disagreed with the bill critics. He said the law won’t be used against people who protest legally.

“There are no ‘unintended consequences,’” he wrote in an email to WyoFile.

Christensen asked industry lobbyist Cindy DeLancey to present the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Typically, the sponsor of a bill will explain the purpose of the measure and its changes to state statutes.

The Wyoming Business Alliance, the organization DeLancey serves as executive director, spent considerable time working on the bill, she said. DeLancey described it as an attempt to protect infrastructure from destruction likely to “cause severe loss of economic activity, injury or even loss of life.”

DeLancey explained how the bill would protect those facilities to the committee. Three of the five members of the panel are bill sponsors. The bill became public days before the 2018 legislative session began.

“In the Senate Judiciary Committee, it is not uncommon for interested and supporting parties to introduce a bill,” Christensen wrote in his email to WyoFile. He noted that while an industry representative had presented the bill, a variety of state entities support it. “While industry is clearly engaged,” Christensen said, “I place high regard on the unified support of our Wyoming public safety agencies and local elected officials.”

Sabrina King, policy director for the Wyoming ACLU and a bill opponent, said Delancey’s introduction emphasized that the bill came from business interests worried about protesters.

“It’s clear again this bill is not addressing any issues [Wyoming] is currently facing,” King said.

Following DeLancey’s presentation of the bill, lobbyists for Wyoming mining, petroleum, manufacturing, railroad and business groups spoke in support of it.

Opponents who testified argued laws already exist to punish such acts. They said the bill is designed to stifle environmental advocacy and the public’s right to protest.

Under Senate File 74, critical infrastructure like this oil rig north of Casper would receive special protections under the law. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The committee voted 5-0 to send SF-74 to the Senate floor for further consideration. It did so after adding more categories to the list of infrastructure facilities it would make a felony to trespass upon.

After Jody Levin, a lobbyist for Charter Communications, asserted that cable television wires also provide critical communication services, the committee added “cable television infrastructure” to the list of infrastructure protected under the bill. The committee also added language to protect infrastructure for irrigation and broadened the definition of dams covered to include “any dam that supplies irrigation, industrial or municipal water supplies.”

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Lawmakers amended the legislation to specify that impeding infrastructure would only become a felony if it was intentional. They also deleted language referring to vandalizing critical infrastructure, after concerns were raised that the bill would make a felon out of a teenager who painted graffiti on an oil pipeline, for example.

The amendments did not satisfy environmental and social justice organizations worried that the legislation will make them vulnerable to $1 million fines for advocating or supporting protests that involve protected infrastructure. Nor did the committee amendments alleviate concerns that the bill was designed to chill free speech and target environmental advocates, said the ACLU’s King. An amendment to define impeding as only including actions “not authorized by law” wouldn’t protect advocates, she said.

“Does it have to be laid out explicitly in state law how you can advocate?” she said.

Industrial assets critical to society

Bill sponsors say the industrial interests represented at the committee meeting manage private assets that are critical public infrastructure because of the essential services they provide and the far-reaching effects of their destruction. Industry representatives supported that contention.

“If you destroy a pipeline that’s going to homes that are trying to keep warm during the wintertime,” said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, “you’re going to not only hurt the pipeline and the company that spent several hundred million dollars just to build the thing … you get to the homes where they don’t have the natural gas and all those homes are going to be freezing. I don’t know how those people are going to keep warm or cook their food.”

It’s not just individual bad actors, Hinchey said. “Environmental organizations do actually say that people should go and do things like this,” he said.  

Wyoming Outdoor Council lobbyist Steff Kessler told lawmakers she has never heard of a Wyoming environmental group advocating “ecoterrorism” in her decades-long career in the state.  

Opponents argued laws about trespassing and vandalism are already on the books. They say the bill is a reactionary response to recent high-profile protests against certain fossil fuel projects.

Wyoming statute currently considers criminal trespass a misdemeanor, punishable by not more than six months in prison, a fine of up to $750, or both. Property destruction has a similar penalty if the property destroyed is worth less than $1,000. Destroying property of a higher value is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000, or both.

Senate File-74 would impose a felony penalty of 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $100,000 for impeding infrastructure, or both. It would also make it a felony offense to trespass with the “intent” to impede infrastructure, even if the act itself is stopped or not carried out.

Organizations can be held responsible and fined up to $1 million if they aid, abet, solicit, encourage, compensate, conspire, command or procure someone to trespass on critical infrastructure, the bill states.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) argued existing statute is not strong enough because it does not punish a trespasser’s intent.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) bows his head as the Wyoming Legislature spends a moment in prayer on the opening day of the 2018 Legislative Session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“They’re woefully inadequate for the intent,” Hicks said. “We need to do something to document the intent.”

Larry Wolfe, a Cheyenne attorney who spent decades representing the mineral industry, excoriated the committee for attempting to suppress dissent.

“This bill appeals to the absolute worst instincts of power,” he said. “We the powerful must protect things that are already protected under existing law.”

Wolfe argued that protesting fossil fuels or some other form of infrastructure by impeding its construction or repair is an exercise of a fundamental right.

“Are you suggesting that it’s freedom of speech to block somebody from repairing a problem on a wind turbine?” asked Christensen.

“I’m suggesting, Mr. Chairman, that what you’re trying to do here is against American democratic principles that we all hold dear,” Wolfe said.

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), one of three senators to vote against the bill’s introduction, expressed a sentiment similar to Wolfe’s in an email to WyoFile.

“This country has been through WWII, civil unrest in the 1960s and a heck of a lot more, but we didn’t need legislation like this,” Case wrote to WyoFile. “Good laws already exist to protect property without this chilling impact on free speech.”

Specter of a Wyoming Standing Rock

Eric Dalton, who testified as a member of the public, questioned the motive behind the legislation.

“What is the problem we’re really trying to solve?” he said. “It really goes back to the Standing Rock [protests].”

Much of the discussion at Friday’s committee meeting did reference the Standing Rock Indian Reservation protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. An advocate for Wyoming law enforcement said Wyoming needs the legislation to prevent its own Standing Rock. Speaking on behalf of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick told the lawmakers he had witnessed property destruction at Standing Rock.

It could happen in Wyoming, he said.

“I don’t want people to think that that just happened in North Dakota,” Glick said. “One of our Niobrara county commissioners already has graffiti going up — ‘No DAPL’ — in that area up there.”

In a subsequent interview, Glick told WyoFile he has not personally seen crimes to impede infrastructure in Wyoming. “This bill is in preparation for the potential of what happened in North Dakota,” he said.

“Our stance is obviously we respect the right of people to protest peacefully, but not when it comes to property destruction as great as is outlined in this [bill]” he said.  

Senate president supports bill, ALEC

In many of its sections, SF-74 mimics model legislation advertised on the American Legislative Exchange Council’s website. ALEC is a think tank that works on state-level policy, particularly around business issues.

ALEC is supported by both dues from lawmakers — who attend conferences and receive research products — and industry dollars. The latter vastly outnumbers the former, according to tax documents. In 2016, ALEC generated around $1.46 million in revenue from conferences and membership dues. Membership dues alone contributed just $74,609.

Gifts and contributions from corporate and individual donors totaled more than $8.8 million that year. The disparity gives credence to the idea that ALEC is designed to enable corporations to influence state legislators, according to the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy.

Many of the corporations that support ALEC build infrastructure or are involved in the fossil fuel industry. Energy Transfer Partners, the company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Koch brothers with their sprawling business interests, are among them.

Earlier this year, three Wyoming lawmakers skipped a state legislative committee meeting in order to attend a conference on balancing the federal budget in Phoenix. Their travel was funded in part by ALEC.

“From my perspective it’s a tool and a vehicle that we utilize,” said Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton). Bebout is a cosponsor on SF-74. In the case of that bill, he didn’t realize it was based on model legislation from ALEC, he said.

“Some people like to look at their model legislation,” he said, if it “has a philosophy consistent with what they do — private sector and free markets, that’s what [ALEC’s] kind of based upon.”

Bebout recognized that SF-74 is generating controversy, and said he had received emails from people concerned about the legislation.

“We have people way over here on that issue and way over here on that issue,” he said. “But there’s concerns about security issues and why not be proactive?”

Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) speaks to the press on the opening day of the 2018 Legislative Session. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Christensen sent WyoFile the following list of supporters of the legislation — with state-connected and law enforcement entities underlined and in bold font:

Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs (of) Police; Wyoming County Commissioners Association; Wyoming Association of Municipalities; Wyoming Business Alliance; Petroleum Association of Wyoming; Wyoming Mining Association; Wyoming Trucking Association; Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association; American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association; Alliance of Wyoming Manufacturers; Wyoming Soda Ash Producers; Rocky Mountain Power; Holly Frontier Corporation; Sinclair Oil; Anadarko Petroleum; Andeavor; ONEOK; Westmoreland Coal, Dyno Nobel, Black Hills Energy; Charter Communications”

The bill was a late entry to the legislative process, and was not publicly considered by the Joint Judiciary Committee over the months leading up to the session. State statute keeps lawmakers’ bill drafting process confidential until the legislation is completed to the sponsor’s satisfaction. The first notice that the public had that SF-74 would be discussed was when it appeared on the Legislative Service Office website a few days before the session opened.

The measure has stirred up bitter feelings leftover from Standing Rock. On Friday, Dale Steenbergen lobbied lawmakers to support the bill. He said he made his case as an agriculturalist whose family owns a ranch in Oklahoma, which enacted similar legislation in 2017. Steenbergen is also president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

“One of the things that really bothers me today when I hear people talking about my people, that ranch in this country, is that they’re going to set this up as the Koch brothers against some poor little protester,” he said. “I’m all for freedom of speech and everyone should have it, but if you start impeding on people’s property and their livelihood, something needs to happen.”

After protests, “who fixes the fences when they leave? Who picks up the trash when they leave? Who repairs the grasslands when they leave?” Steenbergen asked.

Dalton, the member of the public who spoke against the bill, called the costs incurred by law enforcement and other agencies in North Dakota “the burden of democracy.”

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. The abomination at Standing Rock was the incredible environmental damage left by the “peaceful protestors”. I support the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly, but the protestors disregarded private land, and left an incredible amount of waste, including toxic materials. Please tell me how else, besides stiff penalties via legislation, and enforcement can we avoid this happening again?

  2. This smacks of the Citizens United SCOTUS ruling. We heard that corporations being treated the same as a person and being allowed to contribute funds to candidates would not infringe on the John Q Public’s right to be heard. In fact it has not only curtailed the small voices, but has run over the top taking over to do big business’s bidding as any thinking person could have read the writing on the wall in advance of the decision. Once again our freedoms will be squashed if this legislation is passed and I agree with the opinion it will have no unintended reprecussions….because they know full well that it does just exactly what it is meant to do. Criminalize free speech and the right to protest unjust encroachment on private property and a sovereign nation.

  3. “There are no unintended consequences.” The unbridled hubris of that statement takes my breath away. But we now live in the age of hubris.

  4. This bill is frightening in its intent to protect the right to damage the environment for profit over the right of people to protect property rights, public health, and the health of the planet. While it might be okay to increase penalties for actual destruction of corporate owned infrastructure, it is not okay to criminalize “impeding” those functions as a legitimate form of protest. This bill is a blatant attack on free speech and freedom of assembly, and a corrupt legalization of damage to the environment for profit while criminalizing efforts to protect the environment. The “environment” sounds impersonal, but it means protecting the beauty of our state, protecting the wildlife, protecting the quality of air and water, and protecting the livelihood of those who make their living from the land through ranching and farming and tourism. The essence of this bill is to claim a higher level of protection for extractive and polluting uses of our resources over those who use it to grow cattle or crops, or those who use it for recreation, or those who depend on the existing quality of water and air.

    The example of Standing Rock is used as a reason for this bill. Standing Rock was a problem because our nation’s law enforcement agencies forgot that their role is to keep the peace and instead joined with corporate mercenaries to attack almost universally peaceful protestors. People without weapons or threat to use weapons were maced, attacked with flash grenades and rubber bullets, bitten by dogs and imprisoned in dog pens, power sprayed for hours with water in sub-freezing temperatures, and charged with both misdemeanors and felonies that are mostly failing to hold up in court. These were mostly poor people of all ages trying to protect their land and water, but police TOOK SIDES in the protest and helped to quell it with violence. Is that what we want for Wyoming? The role of the police is to keep the peace, not to violently repress free speech. This bill turns our police into soldiers of corporate masters, rather than protectors of people of the state.

    The change that is needed in the current laws are two: 1) prohibit the use of corporate mercenaries to attack and surveil citizens of the state. 2) Specify that police forces at whatever level of government are required to keep the peace, not to join corporations or other interests in attacking citizens.

    As for Dale Steenbergen, he needs to talk to some of the white landowners who were rolled over by Energy Transfer. Their land was condemned for easements, their voice over where on their property an easement might be located was silenced, and some were actually forcefully removed from their own farms. Some lost all use of a wide swath of easement through their fields, and others experienced so much degradation of their soil that they can no longer grow crops. Having to mend a fence is fairly minor compared to that.

  5. Andrew Graham, you are a great reporter. I’ve shared this on Google +. I feel this story resonates and should be picked up nationally. Standing Rock was an abomination. As so many have pointed out, we stole the land from Native Americans, and we punish them for peacefully demonstrating to save what little ground they have left. Shame on us.