FACT CHECK: Are Infrastructure Protection Laws “un-American”?

CLAIM: The Natural Resources Defense Council claims that the US Department of Transportation’s proposed legislation to protect pipelines and pipeline construction projects are “un-American,” “anti-freedom” and an effort to “stop protest.”




These claims would be true only to the degree that the proposal aims to take away the freedom to break the law with minimal consequences. Never mind that the proposal does nothing to prevent legal activities associated with protests, including First Amendment rights of speech and assembly.

The US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) joined states in proposing new legislation to protect pipelines and pipeline construction projects from violent protests and dangerous trespassing and tampering.

“PHMSA maintains serious safety concerns with individuals who intentionally tamper with or damage pipeline facilities, as well as concerns with respect to the safety of the actual individuals who are engaging in this conduct,” the PHMSA said. “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.”

Specifically, the proposal states:

“This provision would strengthen the existing criminal penalty measures for damaging or destroying a pipeline facility. It would specify that vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting, or inhibiting the operation of a pipeline facility are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment. It would also specify that pipeline facilities under construction are included within the scope of the damage prohibitions in addition to operational pipeline facilities.”

This would align federal law with legislative activity in multiple states, including Texas, Missouri, and South Dakota.

But why is this needed?

Extremists are increasingly bold in disrupting pipeline construction projects, as we have noted here. And authorities say their hands are often tied when extremists trespass, turn valves on pipelines to disrupt the flow of gas, or even burn holes in pipelines:

Two women who used torches to burn holes in a portion of the Dakota Access pipeline while under construction have not faced federal prosecution. Stoody said that’s likely because the law doesn’t cover pipelines that aren’t yet operating.

The five main valve turners were arrested and charged with state offenses such as trespassing and burglary.

The protesters hoped that would happen: They wanted to argue in court the danger of climate change justified their actions, in what’s known as the “necessity defense.”

They met with varying degrees of success. Some had their cases dismissed. Convictions were overturned on appeal. Michael Foster, who shut down the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota, was the only one to get prison time. He was sentenced to three years, with all but one year suspended. He served about six months.

In short, this has nothing to do with freedom. These federal and state laws are needed because extremists are not facing consequences for their dangerous and illegal activities.