New Report: 60% of US Oil & Gas Production and Local Infrastructure Protected by Draconian Anti-Protest Laws
October 25, 2023
Our current climate emergency is a direct result of the oil and gas industry’s operations. Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable.
© Amanda J. Mason / Greenpeace
Industry and allies also filed a host of lawsuits and legal actions to silence criticism even as climate change impacts intensify, hitting Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities hardest
WASHINGTON, DC (October 25, 2023)—A legal wall now protects 60% of all US oil and gas production and related local infrastructure from protest and civil disobedience, according to a new report from Greenpeace USA. Since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016, an interconnected web of fossil fuel companies, government officials, and law enforcement have deployed a suite of tactics to steamroll opposition to fossil fuel expansion.
Sweeping fossil fuel anti-protest laws have been enacted in 18 states since 2016. These laws boost penalties for protest-related infractions such as trespassing near energy infrastructure. This makes it far riskier for activists to stand against pipelines and other projects that threaten their communities and the global climate. Another four states have enacted narrower versions of the same law, which could be exploited by prosecutors seeking to issue trumped-up charges against peaceful protesters. These state laws cover roughly 60% of US oil and gas production. Many were based on a “model bill” adopted by the industry-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
In addition to a successful lobbying effort to criminalize free speech, fossil fuel corporations, their lobbyists, and trade organizations have filed numerous lawsuits and legal actions against people and organizations for criticizing oil and gas production and expansion. Out of 116 SLAPP and judicial harassment claims since 2010, 86 were filed by companies that have lobbied for anti-protest laws, including: ExxonMobil, Murray Energy Corporation, Energy Transfer, Chevron, and TransCanada.
Ebony Twilley Martin, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, said: “We are seeing an escalation of tactics to criminalize, bully, and sue those working for climate action, Indigenous rights, and environmental justice. Our current climate emergency is a direct result of the oil and gas industry’s operations. Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable. Oil and gas companies are finding new and dangerous ways to delay the transition to clean energy and protect their own profits.”
Twilley Martin continued: “We at Greenpeace USA are all too familiar with these tactics. We are facing a $300 million lawsuit from Energy Transfer, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer alleges that we organized the massive Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. They targeted Greenpeace as a proxy for the movement as a whole. Now, the industry is watching our lawsuit – and others – to see how effective this tactic will be in silencing protest.”
US and Canadian companies spend millions to squash free speech and protests
According to the new report, Dollars vs. Democracy 2023: Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Playbook to Suppress Protest and Dissent in the United States, nine of the top ten companies that lobbied the most for anti-protest bills since 2017 are fossil fuel companies, including US companies ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Marathon Petroleum Corp., 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.
This trend continues today. In 2023, four states — North Carolina, Oregon, Georgia, and Utah — enacted laws that create heightened risks for climate protesters. North Carolina’s law is especially sweeping and draconian: protesters could face more than 15 years in prison and a mandatory $250,000 fine for impeding pipeline construction. Oregon, Georgia, and Utah enacted laws with narrower provisions, but which could still open the door for aggressive prosecution that punishes protest.
Report authors note that without the rights of free speech and protest—which are protected by the US Constitution—other abuses by the fossil fuel industry can go unchallenged. In Arkansas, for example, state law provides an automatic right to eminent domain for oil pipeline construction, meaning that easement rights can be granted without permission from homeowners if deemed necessary. In Virginia, homeowners were arrested for protesting the construction of a pipeline on their own lands after easement rights were granted.
Nicholas Robinson, Senior Legal Advisor, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, said: “The fossil fuel industry has lobbied for these extreme anti-protest laws to shut down criticism of them. Climate change is an urgent challenge and all Americans, including the communities most impacted by these fossil fuel projects, have a right to have their voice heard, not silenced, at this critical moment for the planet.”
Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said: “This report exposes the insidious tactics the oil industry uses to suppress opposition to its dangerous drilling. It took more than seven years for our organization and community allies to beat back baseless legal harassment by the oil industry in Los Angeles. We need strong laws that protect environmental defenders, not loopholes and subsidies that further Big Oil’s well-funded campaign of deception and greed.”
Industry-government coordination to criminalize and silence protest
This investigation revealed a pattern of close-knit cooperation between fossil fuel companies and law enforcement which often aim to equate nonviolent protest with domestic violent extremism. This can include fossil fuel companies providing subsidies to law enforcement agencies, coordinating protest responses and sharing personal information on activists, and deploying private security firms whose personnel included “off-duty” police officers. Law enforcement authorities, sometimes working side-by-side with private security paid for by fossil fuel companies, have used hostile tactics to quell pipeline protests including:
- Water cannons and rubber bullets against water protectors resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (Morton County Sheriff’s Office).
- Buffer zones that prevented food from being delivered to protesters engaged in tree-sits along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route (US Forest Service).
- Pain compliance—a form of legal torture—against water protectors engaged in equipment lockdowns blocking Line 3 construction (Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office).
Andres Chang, Greenpeace USA Senior Researcher and the report’s author, said: “The rise of these tactics is a direct reaction to the impact of the mass protests at Standing Rock. It is time to stop pretending that the fossil fuel industry is so vital to our national interest that it needs to be protected from any and all criticism; nothing could be further from the truth. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities are getting hit by climate change and polluting oil and gas projects first and hardest, and their voices need to be heard, not silenced.”
The report concludes with a dozen policy recommendations for local, state, and federal governments to address the industry’s “playbook” of tactics that threaten free speech, Indigenous sovereignty, and climate action. These recommendations would strengthen the voice of communities whose rights and livelihoods have been pushed aside for fossil fuel expansion, and cover four themes:
- Protect the right to protest and dissent.
- Reaffirm Indigenous sovereignty and provide redress for human rights violations.
- Strengthen the rights of communities to defend themselves against the harms of the fossil fuel industry.
- Prevent law enforcement from serving the interests of the fossil fuel industry over the interests of the general public.
Contact: Jamie Kalliongis, Greenpeace USA Campaign Communications Director, [email protected], +1 (314) 651-7497.
Greenpeace USA is part of a global network of independent campaigning organizations that use peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future. Greenpeace USA is committed to transforming the country’s unjust social, environmental, and economic systems from the ground up to address the climate crisis, advance racial justice, and build an economy that puts people first. Learn more at www.greenpeace.org/usa.