Ranchers in the House led opposition to the controversial “critical infrastructure” bill, saying it would give energy companies a powerful weapon against them in disputes over land use.
Senate File 74 would make it a felony to block access to “critical infrastructure,” including during a protest. It passed its first of three votes on the House floor Wednesday night by four votes. It was amended and will likely see at least one more vote today.
The bill has generated opposition from environmental groups and a Wyoming Native American advocacy organization, who say it is designed to stifle dissent against the industry and limit grassroots protests in the wake of the 2016 Dakota Access pipeline protests near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
Last night, those voices were joined by three ranchers. The lawmakers argued that SF-74 would rank them beneath energy interests in frequent negotiations over access to leasing sites on their property. They wondered if it would make them vulnerable to felony prosecution if they somehow disrupt the energy infrastructure on their land.
“I’m not thinking about something that happens in some distant place,” said Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) in an apparent reference to the North Dakota protests. “I’m thinking about the place that I’m on, and that the next generation is on.”
Reps. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas) and Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) also spoke against the bill. All three legislators men list ranching as their profession in the Legislative Service Office directory.
As originally drafted, SF-74 would impose severe penalties on protesters and anyone else who damages or interferes with “critical infrastructure” such as a pipeline, powerline, cell tower, or a mine. The measure would impose long prison sentences on anyone who “impedes or inhibits” operation of critical industrial infrastructure — including by blocking access, a frequent protest tactic. The bill also seeks to hold organizations accountable for the actions of protesters or saboteurs they may be linked to as employers or simply supporters. As passed by the Senate, the bill threatened those who abet people who impede of inhibit such operations with million-dollar fines.
The House adopted an amendment cutting the maximum fine to $100,000, after lawmakers noted state statutes do not impose a million dollar fine on any other crime. Even the crime of operating a methamphetamine lab “with booby traps for law enforcement” does not carry an equivalent fine, said amendment sponsor Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). His amendment also inserted language allowing critical infrastructure facility operators to pursue damages through a civil lawsuit.
On Monday, the bill first was amended by the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. The committee originally voted not to advance the bill, killing it on a tie vote. But committee Chairman Mike Greear (R-Worland) prevailed in a procedural dispute and was permitted to hold a second vote a day after the first public meeting was closed. Two members then flipped their votes, advancing the bill to the floor.
The committee’s amendment created a misdemeanor crime of interfering with critical infrastructure, to accompany the felony crime originally in the bill. The misdemeanor charge would apply if the damage or defacement of critical infrastructure amounts to less than $1,000. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
The crime becomes a felony punishable by 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 if the damage done amounts to more than $1,000.
The committee’s amendment also removed the word “encourage” from the list of actions an organization would be liable for. The amendment was designed to assuage the concerns of bill opponents like the Wyoming Interfaith Network, whose former director and current lobbyist, Chesie Lee, testified that she feared her nonprofit could have been fined $1 million for sending bottles of water to Standing Rock protesters under the original bill.
An organization remains liable if it “aids, abets, solicits … compensates, conspires, commands or procures a person to commit the crime of impeding critical infrastructure.”
One lawmaker mocked bill opponents’ concerns that such language would affect their rights to free speech and assembly.
“I’ve had to choke back the tears all night with my rights being trampled right here in front of my eyes,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander). “I hope that my emotions will hold as I venture to discuss this in further detail.”
“I struggle most when they say it’s a violation of freedom of speech,” he said, noting that he like other lawmakers had received “a lot of email” from the public on the bill.
“If it’s part of your freedom of speech to inhibit safe operation or operations at all [of critical infrastructure],” he said, “I think there’s a misunderstanding of what freedom of speech is.”
Several bill opponents, particularly Democrats, did focus on concerns about free speech and the right to protest. Barlow and his fellow ranchers, on the other hand, had more practical concerns. Pinedale rancher Sommers asked if he would be subject to a big fine if a hired hand intentionally used a truck to knock down a power pole.
Barlow questioned why the infrastructure protected by the bill should receive special treatment. He noted agricultural infrastructure, such as stock reservoirs and water wells, was left out. The bill has been supported by business interests, and was brought to lawmakers by a lobbyist for the energy industry employed by the law firm Holland & Hart.
Barlow said he wanted his own “infrastructure” to rank right alongside the energy industry’s.
“I’m going to make sure that my interests, my critical infrastructure, and those of the sugar beet farmer over there, or the wheat farmer over there, are adequately protected,” Barlow said with some sarcasm.
“You want to talk about critical? Or maybe a tramway on those big mountains in the West,” he said, referring to the ski resort at Jackson Hole. Lawmakers do not use proper nouns in debate on the floor. He promised to bring several amendments to extend protection to farm and ranch facilities.
“We’re going to make sure everything’s taken care of,” Barlow said.
Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Chesie Lee is a lobbyist for the Wyoming Interfaith Network, not its director, a role she formerly held. -Ed.