A bill that could impose harsher penalties on protestors cleared its latest hurdle at the state House. Specifically, those who threaten so-called “critical infrastructure” — such as oil refineries, gas pipelines, and even chemical manufacturing plants.
Under the bill, trespassing on those facilities would be a Level 6 felony instead of a misdemeanor. That could mean up to two and a half years in prison and $10,000 fine. Damaging that property would become at least a Level 5 felony, with sentences of up to six years in prison.
Maureen Ferguson is the executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Council. She says attacks on pipelines are on the rise.
“They’re scaling fences, entering property that’s enclosed, doing whatever they feel they need to do to express their opinion,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson says damaging that infrastructure prevents people from getting the energy they need and sometimes harms the environment.
The author of the bill, Sen. Eric Koch (R-Bedford), showed a video of someone breaking into a fenced-in telecommunications facility owned by Smithville Fiber and setting fire to some equipment. As a result, executive vice president Cullen McCarty says customers were without 911 service for 19 hours.
Groups who oppose the bill say it deters people from exercising their right to peaceful protest. According to Inside Climate News, more than 30 states have introduced similar bills since the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) used two of those bills which passed into law in Oklahoma to write legislation for other states.
Denise Abdul-Rahman is the environmental climate justice chair of the Indiana NAACP. She says the bill could discourage people from speaking out against fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change and negatively affect low-income communities and people of color.
“Human lives are at stake and therefore nonviolent however drastic demonstrations may be required to influence our beautiful democracy,” Abdul-Rahman says.
The original bill mentioned that a conspirator "organization" who works with lawbreakers could be fined up to $100,000, but that language was amended in committee to say "person" instead. It's unclear if nonprofit environmental groups would count as "persons" under the law.
Rep. Ryan Dvorak (D-South Bend) says several of these issues are already covered in state and federal law. An action such as bombing a pipeline, for example, is already a Level 2 felony — which has higher penalties than the possible Level 5 or Level 4 felonies discussed in the bill.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.