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Critics Warn Bill Advancing in WY Senate Could Chill Free Speech

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Wyoming already has trespassing laws, but new state legislation would make it a felony to trespass at oil and gas operations. (Pixabay)
Wyoming already has trespassing laws, but new state legislation would make it a felony to trespass at oil and gas operations. (Pixabay)
February 23, 2018

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A bill making its way through the Wyoming Legislature would make it a crime to impede "critical infrastructure," including oil and gas pipelines, storage facilities and refineries.

Critics of Senate File 74 say it's an effort to silence public opposition to projects like the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines, by preventing the kinds of protests that occurred at Standing Rock, and by people who symbolically shut off valves in five states.

Sabrina King, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wyoming, says community groups protesting gas wells near schools and homes could also be at risk under the new law.

"Whether or not someone ever actually did any damage or went near that piece of critical infrastructure, even advocacy is being criminalized here,” says King. “So, we're really being put in a position as citizens of not even being able to advocate for our own health and safety."

Industry groups, energy companies and some law-enforcement agencies support the bill, taking the view that stepping up penalties would protect Wyoming against what some describe as acts of eco-terrorism. The measure would make trespassing on oil and gas operations a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $100,000.

King says the bill isn't necessary to protect infrastructure when trespass and vandalism are already illegal under Wyoming law. She believes the goal of the measure is to discourage people and organizations from engaging in protected free speech and free association, in order to protect companies' assets and profits.

"So, it's really about these large companies wanting to just use our government as a way to protect their corporate interests at the expense of our constitutional rights," she says.

The Wyoming bill is similar to Critical Infrastructure Protection Act legislation modeled by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group with close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

A proposal to make tampering with oil and gas operations a felony in Colorado was defeated last year.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY