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ND Bill Would Criminalize Fossil-Fuel Protests

Opponents of a bill to increase penalties for protesters believe the legislation is a response to the Standing Rock protests. (Becker1999/Flickr)
Opponents of a bill to increase penalties for protesters believe the legislation is a response to the Standing Rock protests. (Becker1999/Flickr)
March 8, 2019

BISMARCK, N. D. - A bill that would crack down on protests of infrastructure such as fossil-fuel pipelines is making its way through the North Dakota Legislature.

Senate Bill 2044 would increase criminal penalties for people who damage, tamper with or impede the construction of critical infrastructure - defined as pipelines, wells and other energy infrastructure. The measure also includes a "conspirator clause" to allow the state to fine organizations that have "conspired with" individuals on these actions.

Heather Smith, executive director of the ACLU of North Dakota, said the clause is too vague and would amount to guilt by association.

"Affiliation is always loose, right? As the ACLU, I have 5,000 members in North Dakota, and I can tell you that I am not keeping tabs on what they are doing all the time," she said. "So, in respects that they might be representing the ACLU or think they are acting as part of my organization - that's not something I would ever know of."

SB 2044, which passed the state Senate last month, had its first hearing in the House on Thursday. Smith said there's no need for this bill because laws already are in place that prohibit trespassing and damaging public infrastructure. She added that the measure could stifle free speech.

The bill was introduced in response to a 2016 pipeline protest in which protesters shut down oil flow for several hours in North Dakota.

Nicole Donaghy, North Dakota Native Vote field director, said she feels protesters have been "villain-ized" since Standing Rock.

"I believe that this is an attempt to chill people who don't agree with the oil and gas industry, or any of the large industries that have their sights set on North Dakota," she said.

Lisa Deville, president of Fort Berthold POWER, an outspoken grassroots group raising awareness about the effects of oil and gas drilling in the Bakken, said she believes the bill is an attempt to keep people like her silent.

"The North Dakota Legislature just needs to put people before industry and think about what we have to live with," she said, "the aftermath of what's happening to us, with the environment and with our health."

The text of SB 2044 is online at legis.nd.gov.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND