Fossil-fuel protesters in Montana face aggressive new laws of up to 30 years’ prison time

The bill would criminalize demonstrations at fossil fuel infrastructure

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Lawmakers in Montana have passed an aggressive, anti-pipeline protest law which could see activists facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines and up to 30 years in prison.

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte is expected to sign the bill into law which would criminalize demonstrations at fossil fuel infrastructure. 

Among the penalties would be up to $150,000 fines and 30 years in prison for individuals. Any organizations found to be “co-conspirators” of protest activity could face up to $1.5million in fines.

According to the bill, a person who “willfully and knowingly” trespasses on property containing a “critical infrastructure facility” and causes more than $1,500 of damage, will be subject to the harsh penalties if found guilty.

A “critical infrastructure facility” is broadly interpreted as “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of the systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters”.

Environmental campaigners who obstruct operations at facilities can be jailed up to 18 months and fined $4,500 under the bill.

The Montana bill becomes the latest in more than two dozen pieces of legislation modeled on the work of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council to stamp down on protests.

According to the International Center for Non-For-Profit Law, some 31 pieces of legislation have been enacted since November 2016 which restrict the right to peaceful assembly.

While Governor Gianforte and his fellow Republicans earlier this month supported bills defending campus free speech in Montana, GOP lawmakers linked protests led by Indigenous communities to why the anti-pipeline legislation is necessary.

State Representative Steve Gunderson, who introduced the bill, justified the legislation by alleging violent actions by protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

“That peaceful protest quickly changed into violent rioting, burning tires, burning vehicles, the throwing of homemade explosive pipe bombs. I’ll leave you with that visual, and the lingering smell of tear gas,” Rep. Gunderson said, according to a report by GrassrootbeerInvestigations.

During 2016 DAPL protests on the Standing Rock reservation, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier alleged the use of “pipe bombs” at the site. He later acknowledged what he had said was not true, blaming the incident on bad intelligence.

The so-called “weapons” were in fact ceremonial pipes, Angela Bibens, lead attorney for the camp’s Red Owl Legal Collective, told The Chicago Tribune.

Campaign finance records show that Rep. Gunderson has received small amounts from oil and gas industry PACs to help fund his relatively inexpensive campaign for the Montana state house. He did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent.

In the last election cycle, Governor Gianforte received tens of thousands of dollars from the coal, oil and gas industry-related PACS, including Koch Industries PAC, Transcanada USA Services PAC, and Cloud Peak Energy Resources LLC Employee PAC.

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