A few years ago, massive protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock changed the popular narrative about what climate activism looked like. The protests made clear that ramming dangerous pipelines through vulnerable communities wasn’t going to be easy anymore.
But since then, rather than scaling back their attacks on these communities, the fossil fuel industry decided to attack them even more fiercely.
Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock were subject to a violent law enforcement response. They were blasted with water cannons in the freezing cold and faced down by heavily armed police in military vehicles.
Now the industry wants to criminalize anti-fossil fuel protests altogether, pushing new laws that turn routine acts of civil disobedience into serious felonies. They’ve found willing partners in the American Legislative Action Council (ALEC). Industry and ALEC efforts have passed such laws in 13 states.
My colleague Gabrielle Colchete and I studied these anti-protest laws in our recent report, “Muzzling Dissent: How Corporate Influence Over Politics Has Fueled Anti-Protest Laws.”
We focused on three states: Louisiana and West Virginia, where these laws have been passed, and Minnesota, where bills have been introduced numerous times (one even passed the legislature, but was vetoed by the governor).
In all three states, controversial fossil fuel infrastructure has faced significant resistance from affected communities. And in every case, the fossil fuel industry has been a major source of campaign money for the legislators who introduced these bills.
For example, in Louisiana, the lead sponsor of the anti-protest bill received $6,600 from oil and gas interests, the third highest of 40 industry sectors he received campaign contributions from. And in West Virginia, the lead sponsor of the anti-protest bill received substantial contributions from Dominion Energy, owner of the failed Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that passed through the state.
All three states had something else in common, too: Their controversial infrastructure projects have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.
Black communities in the path of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, for example, suffer a poverty rate twice the national average. For Indigenous communities in the path of the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, the poverty rate is three times the national average.
Many of the poorer white communities in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia have a life expectancy below the national average. The same is true of the majority-Black communities at the end of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, especially in the “Cancer Alley” area.
The underlying story? Corporate interests fund the campaigns of elected officials, who return the favor — often at the expense of their most vulnerable constituents. In this case, politicians are criminalizing efforts by their own voters to roll back the harms fossil fuel interests are doing to their communities.
There is much work to be done to reverse these unjust laws — and the systemic inequalities that drive them.
We need to push for “Protesters’ Bills of Rights” in state legislatures to codify the right to protest without fear of criminalization and repression, a core democratic right that’s particularly relevant today.
We also need to restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act that protect communities and ecosystems from harmful projects. We should also add another layer of review, a National Environmental Justice Assessment, to evaluate the impacts of new infrastructure projects on marginalized communities.
Finally, we need to clean up systemic corruption. We must push for a ban on hiring or appointing industry lobbyists in regulatory agencies and set up a robust system of public financing of elections as an alternative to our current system of legalized bribery.
These will all be hard political fights, but they’re fights worth having. Our health, our democracy, and our planet depend on it.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.