Austin Huguelet Springfield News-Leader
Published 8:35 PM EDT Apr 4, 2019
JEFFERSON CITY — What a local lawmaker calls reasonable protections for vital infrastructure are being called out as scare tactics aimed at curbing protest against the fossil fuel industry by the state’s environmental groups.
Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, is pushing a bill creating new offenses for interfering with certain industrial and utility sites and related equipment as they’re being built and once they’re up and running.
Trespassing on those sites to “impede or inhibit operations” would be punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. Anyone found to have “willfully” damaged or tampered with equipment could be on the hook for ten years in prison.
A spokesperson said Hough is trying to protect infrastructure people rely on in their everyday lives at a time when news stories in other states have shown protesters “are going to greater extremes, even putting themselves in dangerous situations on private property.”
When asked for examples, the spokesperson emailed links to stories of people attacking natural gas and oil pipelines in multiple other states.
More than a dozen business groups, including at least two pipeline operators with interests in Missouri, supported the bill in a committee hearing in February.
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But environmental groups see a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize protest against the fossil fuel industry across the country.
Missouri Sierra Club President John Hickey and Missouri Coalition for the Environment policy director Ed Smith said they didn’t know of any pipelines under attack in Missouri.
And they pointed out Hough’s bill bears more than a passing resemblance to model legislation from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and bills in a number of other states, while noting the organization has counted several prominent energy firms among its membership.
“This is not a bill that’s about taking care of a problem in Missouri,” Hickey said. “It’s part of a national effort funded by the fossil fuel industry to influence state legislatures across the country.”
To Smith, the whole idea is to scare people off of protests like one in North Dakota that delayed the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
“It delayed the project, it cost shareholders money, and a part of it is greed from folks in an industry that’s contributing to the death of our planet,” Smith said.
Both men also pointed out the bill contained a provision subjecting an organization “found to be a conspirator” with people charged under the statute to fines ten times those assessed to individual offenders, something Hickey said was ripe for abuse.
“So if there’s ten groups opposing something and one person at a protest does something wrong, all of the groups get punished?” he asked. “That’s ridiculous. That’s anti-democratic.”
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, cited many of the same problems, which she said made her vote against the bill in committee.
She said she had no problem protecting important infrastructure, but was wary of infringing on First Amendment rights.
“We still have free speech in this country,” she said, “and I think we need to protect that.”
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Hough, for his part, found little merit in the criticism.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, he said there was nothing in the bill saying protesters couldn’t gather on a sidewalk or public right-of-way.
And he said the Sierra Club’s lawyers should know that there are existing standards prosecutors would have to meet to prove conspiracy.
“This seems like a leap to say ‘We could be held accountable for something we didn’t do,’” he said.
A spokesperson for Hough wrote the senator consulted “with several industry partners with infrastructure in Springfield and he reviewed and drafted language.”
Hough said when he started seeing stories about threats to critical infrastructure, he asked Springfield’s City Utilities if they dealt with any trespass or tampering issues and heard they had.
A spokesman for City Utilities did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
The bill was voted out of the Senate’s committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment 9-2 last month, according to online records.
It will need two more votes in the full Senate before moving to the House.
The legislation is Senate Bill 293.
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