Protestors who interrupt operations or damage oil and natural gas pipeline equipment may face up to 10 years in prison under legislation nearing passage in the Texas legislature.*

Under state House Bill 3557, aka the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, anyone who trespasses and damages a facility may be charged with a third-degree felony that carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison. Anyone impairing or interrupting operations would face a misdemeanor charge and fined up to $10,000 and one year in jail.

The measure, authored by Republican state Rep. Chris Paddie of Marshall, classifies pipelines as critical infrastructure, which puts pipelines in the same category as power plants and water treatment facilities. The bill, which could take effect in September if approved and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would protect any property that is deemed critical infrastructure.*

The Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA) applauded the legislation, as it “strengthens protections of Texas’ critical infrastructure facilities from those who trespass with the intent to damage or interrupt operations, while maintaining current laws and statutes that allow for free speech and the right to protest.”

TXOGA President Todd Staples said the state “is one step closer to providing private property owners and businesses that operate critical infrastructure facilities and their employees greater protections against intentional damage, delays and stoppages caused by illegal activity.

“While state law does and will continue to preserve the rights of those who wish to legally and respectfully protest and express free speech, this bill is badly needed because, unfortunately, we have seen too many examples of illegal activity that is costly to Texas businesses and local governments and puts employees of these facilities in danger and endangers local law enforcement who respond.”

The Texas House Research Organization (HRO) reviewed the legislation earlier this month, noting that the state government code defines “critical infrastructure facility” as ones that are “completely enclosed by a fence or other barrier designed to exclude intruders or clearly marked with a posted sign indicating that entry is forbidden, including certain refining, electrical, chemical, water, natural resources, telecommunications, processing, feeding, and infrastructure facilities.”

The definition also includes portions of aboveground pipelines, oil or gas drilling sites, wellheads and other oil and gas related facilities if they are enclosed by a fence or other physical barrier obviously designed to exclude intruders.

The bill also would cover critical infrastructure under construction and all the relevant equipment, according to the HRO. The bill would only apply to offenses committed after it takes effect.

Current state law provides only minimal criminal and civil penalties for people trespassing on critical infrastructure facilities with the intent to do damage. As the bill would affect only people who trespass and cause damage, it would not prevent people from protesting.

Critics say the measure is unnecessary because laws are in place to protect private property. The bill would criminalize “conscientious, caring people who are the canaries for their communities,” said Big Bend Defense Coalition co-founder Lori Glover, whose group had protested a project by Trans-Pecos Pipeline LLC, which now carries natural gas from the Waha hub south.

Glover was arrested in 2016 after locking herself to equipment at an Energy Transfer Partners LP work site in an attempt to delay construction of Trans-Pecos. She was charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

Similar critical infrastructure bills have been considered or passed in more than a dozen states including Iowa, Louisiana, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

*The original story indicated that the Texas legislature already had sent the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, but a late amendment in the Senate version will require the House to reconsider it before passage. NGI regrets the error.