Oklahoma provides template for pipeline protest backlash

Dakota Access Pipeline protests have sparked changes to the Oklahoma criminal trespass code. The measures could become boilerplate bills for other jurisdictions.

The Oklahoma bill, signed into law this week and immediately effective, mandates steep fines and jail time for those convicted of trespassing at “critical infrastructure facilities” with intent to hinder operations. Such facilities include pipelines, chemical plants, railways, oil refineries and other industrial locations, reports Dale Denwalt of The Oklahoman.

Those who trespass, regardless of intent, face at least a $1,000 fine. (The law doesn’t set an upper limit.) If intent to disrupt is found, the trespasser faces a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Those found guilty of “damaging, vandalizing, defacing or tampering” while trespassing face $100,000 in fines and up to 10 years in jail.

In addition, if those convicted of trespassing are affiliated with a particular organization, the organization could be labeled as a conspirator and fined at 10 times the amount of the individual. Bill advocates said this link was vital to deter out-of-state organizations, which they believe bankrolled and sustained Dakota Access protests.

That same sentiment regarding out-of-state influencers is behind a separate but related tort measure approved by Oklahoma lawmakers this week dubbed the “Vicarious Liability Provision.” The bill “extends civil liability to a person or entity that compensates, provides consideration or remunerates a person for trespassing.” In plain English, those who give shelter or other assistance to people who are charged with trespassing can be held liable for their guests’ actions.

Crude oil storage tanks are seen from above at the Cushing oil hub, in Cushing, Oklahoma, U.S., on March 24, 2016.
Crude oil storage tanks are seen from above at the Cushing oil hub, in Cushing, Oklahoma, U.S., on March 24, 2016. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)

The bill’s author, Rep. Mark McBride, told Denwalt that he wrote the measure in response to Dakota Access protests. Organizers involved with those demonstrations made noise earlier this year about a $900 million, 440-mile pipeline project that connects a massive oil hub in Cushing, OK with a refinery in West Memphis, TN. The “Diamond Pipeline” would consist of 20-inch pipe, capable of moving 200,000 barrels of oil each day, and eliminate the current process of moving the oil from Oklahoma to Louisiana and then up to Tennessee. (The West Memphis refinery was originally built to process oil from the Gulf region, but began refining Bakken crude in 2013.)

Although local organizations across Oklahoma and Arkansas have battled the project since it was announced by partners Plains All American Pipeline LP and Valero Energy in August 2014, lawmakers supportive of the project do not want the national scrutiny given to Dakota Access and Keystone. They’re also savvy enough to understand it was the unified front and collaborative efforts by diverse groups that led to headlines.

It’s hardly shocking that Oklahoma — the state that forbids any state regulation beyond federal requirements — chose to take such an authoritarian and misguided approach to demonstrators. What matters is how many more states follow this lead, making it an even more expensive proposition to use the right of free speech and public assembly.

This column by Lynda Waddington  originally published in The Gazette on May 13, 2017. Photo credit: Nick Oxford/Reuters