West Virginia now has a law on the books to protect natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure from criminal activity, the first of its kind in the Appalachian Basin.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice last week signed House Bill 4615, otherwise known as the West Virginia Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which increases penalties for trespassing or deliberately damaging a variety of virtual and physical assets.

Sponsored by a group of Republican lawmakers, the critical infrastructure covered under the bill is similar to the federal government’s categories for such assets. The bill applies to chemical manufacturers, compressors, natural gas processing plants, pipelines, hydrocarbon storage facilities and refineries, among other things. 

Anyone who is charged with trespassing at sites would face misdemeanor charges that include a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail. If a person were to damage or vandalize assets, they could be charged with a felony and face up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in jail. Conspirators could face even steeper penalties under the law.

Variations of the legislation have circulated across the country in recent years brought about by the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements and high profile protests of the energy sector, such as those against the Dakota Access Pipeline, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of West Virginia, which opposed the bill.

Protests in West Virginia and across the basin have intensified as infrastructure has proliferated to move growing natural gas production out of the Marcellus and Utica shales. In West Virginia alone, natural gas production for both vertical and horizontal wells rose by roughly 20% year/year to 1.8 Tcf in 2018, according to the latest data from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Oil production grew by nearly 60% over the same time to 12 million bbl.

Protestors have camped on private property, occupied trees and chained themselves to equipment across the region in protest in recent years. Ahead of passage, the Republican-controlled legislature debated fiercely over the bill, which includes provisions protecting “the right to free speech or assembly,” including protest, or picketing over labor disputes. Groups like the ACLU, however, argued that some of the terms included in the bill are too broad.