Trump pushes up to 20 years in prison for pipeline protesters

The criminalization of pipeline opposition is ramping up.

A Native American stands in front of the White House during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.  CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A Native American stands in front of the White House during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Trump administration is seeking to dramatically escalate federal penalties for pipeline protesters. Under newly proposed changes, pipeline protesters could face up to 20 years in prison for disrupting the construction of oil and gas infrastructure. The move echoes similarly harsh penalties for anti-pipeline activists being adopted in several states.

Updates proposed to the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released Monday would make interrupting pipeline construction or damaging existing pipelines a federal crime.

According to the proposed PHMSA updates, first reported by Politico, “vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting or inhibiting the operation of” pipelines would be met with fines or potentially many years in jail. Under current law, damaging existing pipelines can lead to up to 20 years jail time, but those “under construction” are now a consideration as well along with “disruption” to pipelines.

Other components of the PHMSA updates include changing the threshold for damages incurred by a pipeline accident before an operator is required to report a problem; the proposal would double the $100,000 threshold currently in place.

The administration argues that the changes are key to ensuring safety.

At least one fossil fuel industry group immediately welcomed the updates. The Natural Gas Council (NGC) called the proposed changes a “positive step” and said that the organization looks “forward to reviewing PHMSA’s specific recommendations and to participating in the process to produce a bill that enhances the safety of the industry and the communities that we serve.” The NGC includes the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Gas Association (AGA) as members, among others.


But environmental groups and activists will likely oppose the proposed measures and are expected to seek legal action against the Trump administration. The updates are also likely to spark alarm among environmentalists as the proposal positions the federal government against pipeline protesters, marking a new frontier in the acrimonious relationship between the White House and fossil fuel infrastructure opponents.

Activists have relied on pipeline protests as a successful protest tactic used to protect vulnerable communities, including indigenous tribes and low-income people of color who often suffer the consequences of fossil fuel impacts. Many also see protest as critical to addressing climate change, an approach that has met with legal success.

During the Obama administration, pipeline opponents scored major wins, including the blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline following outcry from indigenous communities and allies. But President Donald Trump has sought to erode those gains, pushing for pipeline expansion and overruling pushback from impacted communities.

In April, Trump signed executive orders clearing the way for oil and gas pipelines to be built more quickly. Those orders target the power of states controlled by pipeline opponents, like New York, that have long exercised their ability to limit fossil fuel infrastructure. Meanwhile, pipeline-friendly states (which are mostly controlled by Republicans) are ramping up their efforts targeting protesters.


Last month, the Texas legislature passed a bill making it a felony for protesters to disrupt pipeline construction. The bill, supported by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), would make “impairing or interrupting” a pipeline punishable by up to two years in prison. And if this took place during construction it would be considered a third-degree felony punishable by to up to a decade of prison time in the state — the country’s leading oil and gas producer.

Texas isn’t alone in cracking down on pipeline protesters. Louisiana, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, and other energy-rich states have similarly sought harsh penalties for pipeline opponents, who they accuse of hindering safety and the economy. In addition to targeting protesters on the scene of anti-pipeline demonstrations, some lawmakers have also proposed targeting supporters of those protests even when they are not physically present.

But protesters have fought back, many arguing that their free speech rights are compromised by such laws. In May, environmental groups and demonstrators sued to challenge Louisiana’s law, after being arrested in 2018 near the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline, then under construction. Texas advocates have said they are monitoring the progress of legal efforts in Louisiana for an indicator of how they might fare in challenging the Texas legislation.