Transportation Department seeks to crack down on pipeline protests: report

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The Department on Transportation Monday released a proposal that calls for Congress to crack down on protests of existing or under-construction pipelines, as reported by to Politico.

Current law punishes damaging or destroying existing pipelines with fines and up to 20 years in prison. The proposal, by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), would expand the offenses to include “vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting or inhibiting the operation of” pipelines and include both those currently in operation and those under construction, according to the publication.

While the proposal would likely be doomed in the Democratic House, it represents the Trump administration joining several states that have sought to deter activism around pipelines, efforts that critics have said could have chilling effects on First Amendment rights.

A spokesperson for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, told Politico that he “has no intention of allowing a pipeline safety bill to be used as a vehicle for stifling legitimate dissent and protest,” vowing the bill would not make it out of the committee.

“This provision is a clear infringement on the basic right of speech and assembly and a poorly veiled effort to undermine the ability of Native and Indigenous communities to advocate for themselves and their tribal lands,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement.

“This proposal is not meant in any way to inhibit lawful protesters from exercising their first amendment rights, and PHMSA is committed to working with Congress to make sure that this is clear in any final legislation,” said PHMSA spokesperson Darius Kirkwood

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota sued the state over a law signed by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) that allowed the state to sue people or organizations for “riot boosting” even if the defendants did not participate in any rioting. Noem specifically called the law “a legislative solution to ensure the safety and efficiency of pipeline construction in South Dakota.”

In recent years, six states have criminalized protesting near “critical infrastructure,” with Texas and Missouri set to send similar bills to their respective governors’ desks, according to Politico.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council unanimously voted in May to ban Noem from its reservation. The tribe said she consulted with Keystone XL pipeline creator TransCanada without likewise consulting with Sioux tribal councils whose land is affected by the pipeline construction.

Native American tribes have taken the lead against pipeline projects they say would pose environmental hazards or run through tribal lands, with dozens of tribes rallying against the Keystone XL pipeline in particular.

After a series of court orders hindering the pipeline, President Trumpsigned a presidential permit to jump-start construction in March.

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