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Louisiana Legislature Set to Raise Penalties on Pipeline Protesters

The Louisiana State Legislature was considering a bill Tuesday that would criminalize certain types of protests that have become common at many oil and natural gas pipeline construction sites under which it would stiffen the penalties for damaging sites known as “critical infrastructure.”

Louisiana law already prohibits trespassing at sites that include refineries, electrical power generating facilities, water treatment facilities, natural gas transmission compressor stations, liquefied natural gas terminals and transportation facilities such as ports and trucking terminals.

House Bill 727 under consideration would, if enacted, add “pipelines” and “any site where the construction or improvement of any facility or structure” to the list of critical infrastructure sites.

The bill, authored by Democrat Major Thibaut of District 18, comes as oil and gas pipeline protests have grown nationwide over the last decade. It is similar in nature to one promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which “drew inspiration” from two laws enacted in 2017 by the State of Oklahoma, according to ALEC’s website.

The ALEC model bill came on the heels of 2016 protests against the Dakota Access (DAPL) oil pipeline, a nearly 1,200-mile pipeline carrying Bakken Shale crude oil from North Dakota to south-central Illinois. DAPL is part of a larger network owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP), which includes the Bayou Bridge crude line. ETP is currently building out the 24-inch diameter segment of the Louisiana line from Lake Charles to St. James and expects commercial operations to begin late this year.

Several environmental groups have opposed the Bayou Bridge project, citing concerns about wetlands erosion, disruption of the crawfishing industry, seizure of private land through eminent domain and the threat of spills into Bayou LaFourche, which supplies drinking water to more than 300,000 Louisianans, including the United Houma Nation.

In early April, pipeline opponents blocked the entrance to an industrial yard near the starting point of Bayou Bridge that supplies access mats used to create temporary roadways at pipeline construction sites and to enable trucks to pass through muddy areas. And in March, construction workers found equipment being used to build the pipeline vandalized, with hydraulic hoses and electrical lines cut and windows broken, with messages spray painted on heavy equipment.

ETP has faced similar opposition to its pipelines in other parts of the country. Last summer, ETP’s Sunoco Pipeline LP asked the Huntingdon County Common Pleas Court for permission to remove landowners and their supporters from a property in southern Pennsylvania where an encampment had cropped up to prevent construction of the Mariner East natural gas pipeline.

Sunoco has battled landowners in courts throughout Pennsylvania. Opponents have argued that the company shouldn't be allowed to condemn land under eminent domain because the pipeline has been designed as an interstate system to primarily serve overseas markets and not as an intrastate system that would qualify. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, however, has upheld the pipeline's certificates of public convenience from the state Public Utility Commission. The state Supreme Court has also declined to hear a separate challenge to Sunoco's power of eminent domain.

The Louisiana bill, which is expected to reach Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk for signing following Tuesday’s likely affirmative vote after passing overwhelmingly in both the state House and Senate, outlines the punishment for trespassing of critical infrastructure of a sentence of up to five years and a possible fine of up to $1,000. Current law calls for a punishment of up to six years and fines for as much as $1,000.

Sentences for damage to critical infrastructure range from one to 15 years in prison with a possible fine of as much as $10,000, or six to 20 years and a possible fine of up to $25,000 if the damage could threaten human life or disrupt site operations.

In addition, the Louisiana legislation criminalizes “conspiracy” to engage in trespassing of a critical infrastructure or to engage in criminal damage to a critical infrastructure. Under the proposed bill, the harshest penalty would be for conspiring to commit critical damage to a critical infrastructure wherein human life would be threatened or operations will be disrupted. Each conspirator would face a sentence of  between six and 20 years and a possible fine of as much as $250,000.

Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Gifford Briggs said HB 727 is “about the protection of the environment, the people of Louisiana and the critical infrastructure that keeps our state moving.

“The bill strengthens current law to deter individuals from causing damage to pipeline infrastructure and potentially putting their lives in danger. LOGA is proud to work hand in hand with other industry groups to see this bill through to final passage."

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