Bill would reclassify pipelines as critical infrastructure

From Associated Press / Sacramento Bee

BATON ROUGE, LA. – A fight over a crude oil pipeline in southern Louisiana has spilled into the Legislature.

A proposal to stiffen penalties for damaging or trespassing around pipelines is nearing final passage after winning approval Tuesday from a Senate judicial committee.

Rep. Major Thibaut’s bill would classify pipelines as critical infrastructure, lumping them in the same category as power plants and water treatment facilities.

If the Democrat’s proposal becomes law, anyone who damages a pipeline could face up to 15 years in prison and someone who unlawfully enters pipeline land could get up to five years. The intention, he said, is to protect pipelines.

“This bill does nothing to impact the ability to peacefully protest. It only comes into play when there is damage to that critical infrastructure, so if you don’t damage anything this law does not apply,” Thibaut said.

His assertion was challenged by environmental activists, a crawfisherman and a professor. They argued that the bill will stifle free speech against protests, could wrongfully net anyone who accidentally enters pipeline land in a state interlaced with pipelines and noted that the bill included penalties for “unauthorized entry” to critical infrastructure.

“We do still think there’s some question about the intentional nature of this singling out pipeline protests,” said William P. Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

The bill comes as construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana’s Cajun country has been marked by protests, a handful of arrests and legal fights.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that sparked a string of violent clashes between protesters and police in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017.

During debate, Thibaut’s bill was championed by Tyler P. Gray, general counsel for Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, who fielded questions from lawmakers while sitting at Thibaut’s side.

Gray said the law only applies in a “very narrow situation” involving critical infrastructure.

“It has to fall within the definition, there must be a damage for anything in this thing to be triggered,” he added.

The original proposal called for up to five years in prison for anyone convicted of conspiracy to enter pipeline land without authorization and up to 15 years in prison sentence for conspiracy to damage the infrastructure. Lawmakers on the Senate panel removed those provisions before voting the bill out.

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