Science

Ohio Sneakily Passes Law That Helps Criminalize Anti–Fossil Fuel Protests

A man waves a U.S. flag as another man with arms raised walks toward a barricade.
Navy veteran John Gutekanst, from Athens, Ohio, waves a U.S. flag as an activist approaches the police barricade with his hands up on a bridge near Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Dec. 4, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

This story was originally published by HuffPost and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Ohio lawmakers faced fierce blowback last winter over a bill that would escalate criminal charges on fossil fuel protesters and threaten religious organizations or nonprofits that support such demonstrations with crushing fines.

By then, the state Senate had already passed the proposal, known as SB 33. At House hearings that lasted until early 2020, however, about 171 opponents testified against the effort they said risked chilling free speech and preventing the faithful from exercising their spiritual duties at a moment when scientists credibly argue that new fossil fuel projects doom humanity to hellish global warming. Just nine spoke in favor of the bill.

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For nearly a year, the bill sat dormant. But last week, on the state Legislature’s final day, House lawmakers quietly passed it.

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“They’re just cowards, plain and simple cowards,” Teresa Mills, executive director of the nonprofit Buckeye Environmental Network, said by phone Friday night. “Shame on them.”

State Sen. Frank Hoagland, the Republican who sponsored the bill, did not return a call or email requesting comment on Friday.

The proposal is part of a wave of anti-protest bills that began surfacing in state legislatures in 2017 but picked up steam as the COVID-19 pandemic reached its initial peak. The bills follow a model. They designate virtually any oil, gas, coal, or plastics facility as “critical infrastructure,” a status normally afforded to dams and nuclear reactors. Then they ramp up criminal penalties for commonplace protest tactics, such as blocking a roadway, tethering oneself to equipment, or even just holding a demonstration near a company’s property.

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Offenses that were once minor misdemeanors are reclassified as more severe crimes and, in some cases, felonies. Fines for the offenses can soar into the tens of thousands of dollars, and convictions can sometimes carry jail sentences.

Under Ohio’s legislation, anyone convicted of stepping foot on critical infrastructure property and “causing another person to believe that the offender will cause physical harm” would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, a class of crime that includes domestic violence and drunk driving and is punishable with up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. Those who trespass “with purpose to destroy or tamper with the facility” face third-degree felony charges, which in Ohio can result in up to five years in jail and $10,000 in fines. (The bill itself does not set minimum penalties.)

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Any organizations that “knowingly direct, authorize, facilitate, or encourage a person to commit any of the following offenses or provide compensation to a person for committing any of the following offenses” can be “punished with a fine that is ten times the maximum fine that can be imposed on an individual.” Companies that operate critical infrastructure could then sue those same organizations in civil court too.

Such penalties could bankrupt congregations like those in Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, a network of churches that opposed the bill.

“The fact that this could have an impact on some tiny little church in the middle of Appalachia that’s trying to protect its people from pollution really pisses me off, which I realize is not very theological language,” said Rev. Joan VanBecelaere, the church network’s executive director. “But this is not just protest. It’s a public witness of who we are as faithful people.”

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About 40 states have introduced parallel legislation over the past four years. Ohio would be the 14th state to pass the measures into law. Roughly half a dozen have been enacted since March in states that include Mississippi, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

The bills’ similarities are no coincidence. In 2017, the American Legislative Exchange Council—the right-wing policy shop funded by big business and billionaires—began promoting a generic version of the bill in response to the protests to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a water source Native Americans held sacred.

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Militarized police and private security forces brutalized environmentalists and Indigenous activists who camped out at the site of the proposed oil pipeline, injuring at least 300 unarmed protesters in one day, including one woman who nearly lost her arm. The heavily armed security forces reported no such injuries.

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The bill’s proponents, though, cited the risk of violence by protesters as a need for the legislation. In a December 2017 letter urging state legislators to champion the proposal, five energy trade groups and a big oil company listed five examples of threats environmentalists posed to so-called critical infrastructure.

Only one example actually involved environmentalists. During the Dakota Access fight, activists clipped the locks on fenced-in portions of a connected oil pipeline in the Midwest and turned the valves closed, briefly stopping the flow of oil to refineries. The demonstrators were arrested and charged under existing laws. The other five examples had nothing to do with environmental concerns and were instead loosely bound by mental illness or workplace grievance.

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Many of the same corporate actors that pressed for similar bills in other states lobbied on SB 33, disclosures show, though the records do not indicate the position companies and trade groups took.

From January 2019 through August 2020, companies including Duke Energy, Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil Corp., and TransCanada, as well as trade groups including American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, registered to lobby on SB 33, according to disclosures analyzed by Connor Gibson, a freelance researcher who tracks critical infrastructure legislation.

Between 2018 and 2019, lobbyists whose clients included fossil fuel giant Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity, the political group funded and controlled by Koch executives, met with Hoagland, according to emails the watchdog group Documented obtained via Ohio public records requests.

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Hoagland himself appears to have a stake in the bill. He owns two consultancies―360 Safe Solutions, and Special Tactics and Rescue Training―that provide private security services to fossil fuel companies and advertise a “particular expertise in threats to the oil and gas industry.” The potential benefit prompted calls for Hoagland to take “a basic, conflict-of-interest-avoidance pledge” to “never accept contracts to work a security detail at protests involving ‘critical infrastructure.’ ”

It’s unclear whether Hoagland even considered such a pledge, particularly in the 11 months that passed without any movement on the bill.

“It’s pretty cynical for these dirty-energy companies to let the bill idle for almost a year before handing out felonies for Christmas,” Gibson said.

Mills said she and others opposing the bill only learned that legislators had taken it up again because a lawmaker who opposed the legislation called her hours before.

“We didn’t even have 12 hours’ notice that they were going to vote on this bill,” she said. “And we can’t go to the statehouse because those jerks don’t wear masks. They’ve got two reps in the hospital now with the virus, so we can’t go and we can’t have our voices heard at the statehouse.”

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