Pending legislation that would impose severe penalties on anyone who damages or interferes with “critical infrastructure” may be designed to stifle protests of new energy development in Wyoming, bill opponents said this week.
Energy and other industrial interests fear Wyoming could see a protest similar to those at “Standing Rock” that blocked construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for months in North Dakota in 2016, the opponents charged at a news conference Thursday.
“Wyoming being an energy-industry-filled state, I’m thinking what’s in the long scope of things?” said Lynette Grey Bull, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, that works for Native American interests in Wyoming. “What is ahead that we don’t know about?” she asked.
“As a Native American leader, as somebody who has been involved in fighting for rights not only at Standing Rock but on other issues, this bill is a threat to our voice. It’s also a threat to our sovereign rights,” she said.
Both Grey Bull, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation and the Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and Rodger McDaniel, a pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne, said they protested at Standing Rock.
“This bill comes as a result of the fact that the big banks and the big energy companies in this country almost lost that battle,” McDaniel said. “Had it not been for the improbable election of Donald Trump, that pipeline would’ve been shut down.”
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had halted the pipeline’s construction in order to explore alternate routes further away from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. President Trump reversed that decision shortly after taking office in 2017.
The bill opponents made their comments at a press conference at the Jonah Business Center, the temporary home of the Wyoming Legislature, on Thursday. The bill, which passed the Senate by a wide margin, will get its first hearing in the House on Monday, before the House Judiciary Committee.
Along with Grey Bull and McDaniel, speakers included Sabrina King, policy director of the ACLU of Wyoming, and Chesie Lee, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Interfaith Network. Representatives from the Sierra Club and the Powder River Basin Resource Council also attended the news conference.
The bill, SF-74, has strong legislative support and the backing of many Wyoming industrial interests. During Senate debate, a few lawmakers voiced concerns about government overreach, a common point of debate in Wyoming’s Legislature. They said the measure is unwarranted and existing laws suffice. Nevertheless, the bill passed 25-5 on its final vote in that chamber.
The bill’s language defines critical infrastructure as including above-ground pipelines, power plants, dams, electrical substations, irrigation equipment, cable television infrastructure and other forms of infrastructure. The measure would impose long prison sentences on anyone who “impedes or inhibits” such infrastructure. It makes organizations that support such protesters vulnerable to $1 million fines.
While privately owned, bill proponents say the “critical” assets deserve greater protection because of the essential services they provide and the far-reaching effects of their destruction.
For opponents, the Wyoming bill, and others similar to proposed in other state legislatures, has inflamed distrust of state and federal authority that has simmered since the Standing Rock protests. Native American activists and other protesters clashed with police as they drew the country’s attention to the pipeline project they said endangered water resources and cultural sites important to the Lakota Sioux. For many of the Standing Rock protesters, law enforcement at the time seemed more interested in supporting corporate interests than protesters’ rights.
Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), the bill’s sponsor, has said opponents concerns about their right to protest are overblown. The law won’t be used against people who protest legally, Christensen said, and is designed to stop those who would perpetrate ecoterrorism on facilities in Wyoming. “There are no ‘unintended consequences,’” he wrote in an email to WyoFile.
SF-74 largely mirrors model legislation posted on the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In Wyoming, it has been pushed by the Wyoming Business Alliance. A long list of energy companies that operate in the state, including pipeline company ONEOK, Cheyenne oil refinery HollyFrontier Corporation, Westmoreland Coal and others, back the bill.
The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of Municipalities also support the legislation.
The American Legislative Exchange Council held a reception at the Nagle Warren Mansion in Cheyenne on the same night of the press conference. It was open to all legislators but by invitation only to others, according to the Legislative Service Office’s Special Events Calendar.
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.