The Silencing of Climate Protestors

Anti-protest laws make it harder for climate protestors. The trifecta of fossil fuel companies, government officials, and law enforcement protect 60 percent of all US oil and gas production from protests and civil disobedience, according to a new report from Greenpeace USA.

Since the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline,18 states enacted fossil fuel anti-protest laws. Many laws are based on a model bill by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-funded group.

The laws create extreme penalties. Four states (North Carolina, Oregon, Georgia, and Utah) enacted laws that make it harder for climate protestors. Impeding an energy facility in North Carolina can be punished with up to 19 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. In Georgia, impeding the operation of critical infrastructure with “force” can be punished with anything between two and 20 years in prison.

Some cities have also enacted anti-protest laws. A law in Jackson, Mississippi, prohibits residents from peacefully protesting near government buildings without permission from state officials. Jackson is a majority-black city.

The US Constitution protects the right to free speech and protest. However, anti-protest laws restrict those rights, which makes it harder to challenge abuses by fossil fuel companies. Arkansas state law gives the right to eminent domain for oil pipeline construction, which allows construction without homeowners’ permission.

Using Lawsuits to Silence Protests

Fossil fuel companies comprise nine out of 10 companies that lobbied the most for anti-protest bills since 2017. They include US companies ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Marathon Petroleum Corp., and Canadian companies Enbridge and TC Energy (Trans Canada). Twenty-five fossil fuel and energy companies contributed over $5 million to anti-protest bill sponsors.

Lawsuits are another way that companies silence protests. Out of 116 strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) since 2010, 86 were filed by companies that lobbied for anti-protest laws, including ExxonMobil, Murray Energy Corporation, Energy Transfer, Chevron, and TransCanada. Fifteen of the 116 claims were filed by companies with trade groups that lobbied for anti-protest laws or hired lobbyists.

The Cozy Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Fossil Fuel Companies

Law enforcement and fossil fuel companies work side-by-side to discredit and stop protestors. Both law enforcement and fossil fuel companies use public relations techniques to disparage protestors. They often depict them as violent extremists or terrorists. Law enforcement sometimes works with private security paid for by fossil fuel companies, and they have used hostile tactics, including:

  • Firing water cannons and rubber bullets at people protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Enacting buffer zones that prevented food from being delivered to protesters along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route.
  • Using pain compliance, a form of legal torture, against protesters engaged in equipment lockdowns blocking construction.

“We are seeing an escalation of tactics to criminalize, bully, and sue those working for climate action, Indigenous rights, and environmental justice,” said Ebony Twilley Martin, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. “Our current climate emergency is a direct result of the oil and gas industry’s operations. Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable. Oil and gas companies are finding new and dangerous ways to delay the transition to clean energy and protect their own profits.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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