Fossil fuel companies have spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign donations to state lawmakers who sponsored anti-protest laws—which now shield about 60 percent of US gas and oil operations from protest and civil disobedience, according to a new report from Greenpeace USA.
Eighteen states, including Montana, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, West Virginia, and the Dakotas, have enacted sweeping anti-protest laws which boost penalties for trespass near so-called critical infrastructure, that make it far riskier for communities to oppose pipelines and other fossil fuel projects that threaten their land, water and the global climate.
Another four states have enacted narrower versions of the same law, but which could still be exploited to issue trumped-up charges against peaceful protesters. Many were based on a “model bill” promoted by the industry-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
According to the report, nine of the top 10 companies that lobbied most for anti-protest bills since 2017 are fossil fuel companies, including US companies ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum, as well as Canadian companies Enbridge and TC Energy (Trans Canada).
In addition, 25 fossil fuel and energy companies have contributed more than $5 million to state anti-protest bill sponsors in this timeframe, data from political finance trackers Open Secrets and Follow the Money shows.
According to Dollars v Democracy 2023: Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Playbook to Suppress Protest and Dissent in the United States, a playbook of tactics has been deployed by corporations, law enforcement agencies and fossil fuel-friendly lawmakers in the US since the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests at Standing Rock in 2016. This includes mass arrests, spurious litigation, intelligence sharing, harsh policing tactics such as water cannons and sophisticated public relations efforts to depict activists as troublemakers and extremists, the report says.
It’s part of a global strategy reported by the Guardian to silence, discredit and criminalize environmental activists and Indigenous rights defenders opposed to polluting energy, mining and other extractive projects that are incompatible with meaningful climate action.
“We are seeing an escalation of tactics to criminalize, bully, and sue those working for climate action, Indigenous rights and environmental justice… [as] oil and gas companies find new ways to delay the transition to clean energy and protect their own profits,” said Ebony Twilley Martin, the executive director of Greenpeace USA. “Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable.’
Since 2017, more than 250 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 45 states including legislation to eliminate driver liability for hitting protesters and create felony offenses for demonstrations construed as riots, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
The bills appear to have proliferated as a response to prominent student, environmental and racial justice movements such as Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, and experts say they restrict the first amendment protected right to free speech, assembly and protest.
Lawmakers have claimed that the bills are needed to prevent violence, despite the laws banning violent acts and property damage already existing while the overwhelming majority of protests in the US are nonviolent.
In Minnesota, law enforcement—which along with other agencies received millions of dollars in payments from the Canadian company Enbridge behind Line 3—more than 1,000 arrests were made between December 2020 and September 2021 as nonviolent protesters tried to stop the rerouting and expansion of the 1,097-mile tar sands oil pipeline through Indigenous lands and waterways. At least 967 criminal charges were filed including three people charged under the state’s new critical infrastructure protection legislation.
Fossil fuel firms are also increasingly using civil litigation to intimidate activists and chill legitimate dissent, according to the new report.
Greenpeace found that about 75 percent (86 out of 116) of known SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—and other forms of judicial harassment cases since 2010 were linked to companies that have also lobbied for anti-protest criminal laws, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and TransCanada. The SLAPPs include a $300 millon lawsuit filed against Greenpeace US by the US company behind the DAPL, Energy Transfer, which alleges that the non-profit organized the massive Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. The case, which experts fear could have major ramifications for advocacy, is scheduled to open in North Dakota next summer.
This year has marked a further blow to the constitutional right to protest in the US, starting with the fatal police shooting of forest protector and anti-Cop City activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in Atlanta in January 2023. It was the first case in US history of police killing an environmental activist while protesting.
In September, the Georgia state attorney general indicted 61 community organizers on racketeering charges, alleging that those who peacefully opposed the construction of the sprawling police training complex were part of a criminal enterprise. The officers who peppered Paez Terán with 14 bullets, leaving 57 wounds, will face no charges.
Also this year, developers of the Mountain Valley pipeline—which will transport fracked gas 300 miles through West Virginia and Virginia—filed a $4 million civil lawsuit which seeks to restrict 41 individuals and two organizations from fundraising and other activities alleged to have slowed construction. While in North Carolina a draconian new anti-protest law allows up to 19 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for impeding an energy facility.
David Armiak, research director with the Center for Media and Democracy, said the Greenpeace report “exemplifies how the fossil fuel industry exerts its outsized influence over state and local politics to curtail the constitutional right to protest with the goal of extending its profit model.”
He added: “As the climate emergency intensifies, policy makers should adhere to the authors’ recommendations and pass anti-Slapp laws, repeal anti-protest policies and ensure that treaties with Indigenous communities are respected.”
The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade association, said it supported the “public’s first amendment right to peaceful protest” but strongly opposed “any criminal activity or physical violence that could put lives, communities and the environment at risk”.
In a statement it added: “We share the urgency of confronting climate change together without delay; yet doing so by eliminating America’s energy options is the wrong approach and would leave American families and businesses beholden to unstable foreign regions for higher cost and far less reliable energy.”