Wyoming ACLU director Sabrina King (right) and Lynette Grey Bull, a Northern Arapahoe tribe member and director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, speak against SF-74, a bill to protect critical infrastructure, at a press conference Thursday. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Pending legislation that would impose severe penalties on anyone who damages or interferes with “critical infrastructure” may be designed to stifle protests of new energy development in Wyoming, bill opponents said this week.

Energy and other industrial interests fear Wyoming could see a protest similar to those at “Standing Rock” that blocked construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for months in North Dakota in 2016, the opponents charged at a news conference Thursday.

“Wyoming being an energy-industry-filled state, I’m thinking what’s in the long scope of things?” said Lynette Grey Bull, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, that works for Native American interests in Wyoming. “What is ahead that we don’t know about?” she asked.

“As a Native American leader, as somebody who has been involved in fighting for rights not only at Standing Rock but on other issues, this bill is a threat to our voice. It’s also a threat to our sovereign rights,” she said.

Both Grey Bull, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation and the Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and Rodger McDaniel, a pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne, said they protested at Standing Rock.

“This bill comes as a result of the fact that the big banks and the big energy companies in this country almost lost that battle,” McDaniel said. “Had it not been for the improbable election of Donald Trump, that pipeline would’ve been shut down.”

Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had halted the pipeline’s construction in order to explore alternate routes further away from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. President Trump reversed that decision shortly after taking office in 2017.

The bill opponents made their comments at a press conference at the Jonah Business Center, the temporary home of the Wyoming Legislature, on Thursday. The bill, which passed the Senate by a wide margin, will get its first hearing in the House on Monday, before the House Judiciary Committee.

Along with Grey Bull and McDaniel, speakers included Sabrina King, policy director of the ACLU of Wyoming, and Chesie Lee, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Interfaith Network. Representatives from the Sierra Club and the Powder River Basin Resource Council also attended the news conference.

Wayne Lax, a board member for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, listens in the back of a press conference staged Thursday by opponents of SF-74, a bill to protect critical infrastructure. The conference drew 19 people on a busy day at the Jonah Business Center, temporary home of the Wyoming Legislature. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The bill, SF-74, has strong legislative support and the backing of many Wyoming industrial interests. During Senate debate, a few lawmakers voiced concerns about government overreach, a common point of debate in Wyoming’s Legislature. They said the measure is unwarranted and existing laws suffice. Nevertheless, the bill passed 25-5 on its final vote in that chamber.

The bill’s language defines critical infrastructure as including above-ground pipelines, power plants, dams, electrical substations, irrigation equipment, cable television infrastructure and other forms of infrastructure. The measure would impose long prison sentences on anyone who “impedes or inhibits” such infrastructure. It makes organizations that support such protesters  vulnerable to $1 million fines.

While privately owned, bill proponents say the “critical” assets deserve greater protection because of the essential services they provide and the far-reaching effects of their destruction.

For opponents, the Wyoming bill, and others similar to proposed in other state legislatures, has inflamed distrust of state and federal authority that has simmered since the Standing Rock protests. Native American activists and other protesters clashed with police as they drew the country’s attention to the pipeline project they said endangered water resources and cultural sites important to the Lakota Sioux. For many of the Standing Rock protesters, law enforcement at the time seemed more interested in supporting corporate interests than protesters’ rights.  

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Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), the bill’s sponsor, has said opponents concerns about their right to protest are overblown. The law won’t be used against people who protest legally, Christensen said, and is designed to stop those who would perpetrate ecoterrorism on facilities in Wyoming. “There are no ‘unintended consequences,’” he wrote in an email to WyoFile.

SF-74 largely mirrors model legislation posted on the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In Wyoming, it has been pushed by the Wyoming Business Alliance. A long list of energy companies that operate in the state, including pipeline company ONEOK, Cheyenne oil refinery HollyFrontier Corporation, Westmoreland Coal and others, back the bill.

The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of Municipalities also support the legislation.

The American Legislative Exchange Council held a reception at the Nagle Warren Mansion in Cheyenne on the same night of the press conference. It was open to all legislators but by invitation only to others, according to the Legislative Service Office’s Special Events Calendar.

 

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Chesie Lee is a lobbyist for the Wyoming Interfaith Network, not its director, a role she formerly held. -Ed.

Andrew Graham

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. “I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically… It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way…”

    Thoreau wrote those words at the beginning of his essay “Civil Disobedience” almost 170 years ago. It sounds like a saying custom made for the Tea Party. But when financial interests close to the heart of politicians and to many Wyomingites are involved or more likely, when politicians posture to be seen as more conservative, more vindictive toward liberals, ideals fall by the wayside.

    Legal protesting in not civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is purposely breaking a law to call out a perceived injustice with the perpetrators understanding their actions, behaving nonviolently and willing to accept the legal consequence of their actions (arrest and fines or jail) in an attempt to bring about positive change. The Boston Tea Party comes to mind as well as sit-ins and marches of the civil rights era. In Wyoming, in 1943, Cliff Hansen led a protest joined by the movie star Wallace Beery and ranchers armed with rifles on a cattle drive across the proposed Jackson Hole National Monument. Do the sponsors of this bill really think Mr. Hansen should have been put in prison for his action? Of course not. They agreed with his actions. They want the bill to apply to only those they disagree with.

    The idea that Republicans who support this bill would lead a call to massively increase penalties, not on civil disobedience, but on civil disobedience they personally oppose make them no better than some on the left who demand freedom of speech but would deny it to those with different views as is too often seen on college campuses and in public debate. In its purest form, Republicans stand for individual freedom and responsibility, or at least to hear them talk that is their belief. Plainly individual freedom and responsibility are no longer dearly held values but a talking point to use when convenient for their goals, to be discarded when such values offer unpleasant consequences. They have become Republicans first, Americans second.

    I know I am naive to expect better from politicians, but I had always believed, despite massive evidence to the contrary, Republicans would stick to their most basic beliefs. Now I have to become a liberal-I hold them in such low opinion that at least they will never disappoint!

  2. Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), comments are hypocritical and dishonest at best. I have never protested. I believe the issues behind Standing Rock and many other protests are overblown by the protesters and often serve as an issue of the day for activist who are often more active than informed. However, for Mr. Christensen to say “The law won’t be used against people who protest legally,” shows why it is not only an unneeded law but an attempt to limit free speech. If the law won’t be used against people who protest legally, then plainly it will only be used against people protest illegally. Arrest the illegal protesters! It is already illegal to blow up a dam or block a public assess. Those who perpetrate terrorism on facilities in Wyoming can and should be arrested and punished as state statue already allows. Talk about excess government interference. It is not impossible to support business, to support conservative ideals and still defend the highest and noblest of American ideals. There was a protest in Boston Harbor a while back… It was how America was born. In any state this bill would be shameful. In Wyoming, with our inherent love of freedom, it is cowardly at best. Mr. Christensen, you can be a Republican and an American, but I think you have the order confused.

  3. At Standing Rock, we saw horrific violence against Native and other water protectors. That violence was carried out through a collaboration of county sheriffs, state police, federal law enforcement agencies, and mercenaries hired by Energy Transfer. Police from other states, including Wyoming, also joined under authorization for mutual aid in a natural disaster. All of this was mounted against unarmed and peaceful protestors. White landowners were not treated much better, some even forcefully removed from their farms for trying to document the damage to their farmland. After the protests ended and the pipeline work was completed, the courts found that the permit for the project had been illegally approved, just as the tribes had argued. Since the pipeline went into service, there have been several leaks despite the claims by Energy Transfer of how safe the pipeline would be. They have worked with North Dakota to try to prevent information about leaks from being released to the public. This is what Sen. Christiansen’s bill will do for Wyoming. It will allow jail terms of up to 10 years for individuals, and fines up to $1 million for organizations who the corporations will claim aided those who protest. This fits nicely with the corporate strategy employed the last several years to try to bankrupt public donation funded organizations who oppose projects destructive of the environment. In Wyoming, this bill may be viewed as aimed at Native Americans. In truth, the bill will make it difficult for those employed in other industries, farming, ranching, and recreation, to protect their livelihood from damage to air, water, land, wildlife, and domestic stock. It is clearly intended to chill the right to free speech and assembly, as is evident in the language pertaining to “impeding” corporate works. It is not directed at damage to infrastructure, as advertised, but at something much broader and poorly defined. This bill is a direct attack on the rights of free speech, property rights, and tribal sovereignty, and it is before the legislature at the behest of the Koch brothers through ALEC, with the clear intent of pursuing a national corporate agenda, rather than addressing issues in Wyoming. It is a throughly bad bill that supports unfettered environmental degradation by the oil and gas industry.