Pipeline Protesters, Journalist, and Landowners Sue Over Louisiana Law
May 22, 2019, Baton Rouge – Today, landowners, community members, environmental justice advocates, and a journalist filed a lawsuit challenging a Louisiana law that makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to be anywhere on the 125,000 miles of pipelines that run throughout the state without permission. The overwhelming presence of pipelines in the state is just one of the factors that attorneys say makes the law vague and unconstitutional. Among the plaintiffs are protestors arrested on a construction site in the Atchafalaya Basin, a site on which the plaintiffs were arrested despite having the legal permission of the landowners to be there.
The law expanding the definition of critical infrastructure was written by the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) to include pipelines. The legislation became law on August 1, 2018 after passage in the Louisiana legislature. Prior to LMOGA’s bill, the critical infrastructure definition included only enclosed facilities like refineries and chemical manufacturing and water treatment plants. Louisiana’s vast network of pipelines, most of which are underground, underwater and difficult to see, run through private property and public land throughout the state.
Attorneys say the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it is impossible to know when and where one is trespassing. They also argue that it targets environmental justice advocates because of their political views, an argument borne out by the arrests. Some of the plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit were arrested for non-violent protests under the law immediately after it went into effect; those charges are pending.
“By turning so much of the land in this state into critical infrastructure, the average person can find themselves facing five years in prison for literally just being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Pamela Spees. “The oil and gas industry pressed this law forward as a means of chilling and discouraging speech and expression in opposition to pipeline projects, but almost anyone can find themselves on the wrong side of this law.”
According to the lawsuit, locations deemed “critical infrastructure” could be “completely invisible and virtually anywhere.” Attorneys note that landowners with pipelines running through their property, pedestrians walking along public roads, recreational boaters, and commercial vessels may unknowingly violate the law. Moreover, the complaint argues, the law does not clearly define what conduct is prohibited, who determines whether permission to be near a critical infrastructure has been revoked, how much of an area around a critical infrastructure is covered by the law, or how to determine where such infrastructure is located when there is no notice or marker.
“The goal of this unconstitutional law is to further corporate interests and silence Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities that take a stand for the rights of our Mother Earth that we human beings depend upon for our existence,” said Anne White Hat. “While our leadership ignores the growing climate chaos, ALEC and its ‘Big Oil’ partners can try to leverage America's pay-to-play politics to silence us – but we will fight this on the front lines and in the courts.”
More than a dozen protesters have been arrested under the law since it took effect in August 2018. Many of those arrested had permission from the property owners to be on the property. Moreover, a Louisiana judge found that it was in fact the pipeline company that had trespassed onto the property where most of the arrests occurred, beginning pipeline construction before legally obtaining a right of way on the land. Another three people arrested were in canoes in navigable public waters. Before the law went into effect, those trespassing on property without authorization or remaining after being forbidden faced misdemeanor charges. Now they face serious felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and heavy fines.
“This law is a massive overreach by an abusive industry,” said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Instead of honoring our democracy and debating the utility of pipeline, they wrote legislation to try and ban protests and intimidate those of us who disagree with their destruction of our planet. We will continue to disagree and to protest, and one step is to challenge this law.”
This critical infrastructure law is part of a national effort to crack down on environmental activists across the U.S. The first of these laws was passed in Oklahoma in 2017, creating severe penalties for interfering with pipelines and other “critical infrastructure” and “conspiring” to commit such interference. The bill’s sponsor explicitly noted that the law was introduced in response to pipeline protests. In January 2018, shortly after the Oklahoma legislation was enacted, the corporate-funded, politically conservative group of state lawmakers and corporate representatives known as ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, adopted model legislation based on the Oklahoma critical infrastructure law, and has pushed for adoption of the laws in many states. Critical infrastructure bills have been introduced 23 times in 18 states since 2017, 14 times in 2019 alone.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ White Hat v. Landry case page.
RISE St. James is a faith-based community led organization protecting the air, land and water of St. James Parish from industrial pollution.
350 New Orleans is a volunteer climate activist group connecting our region to the international climate change movement led by 350.org. Our mission is to lend support to initiatives in New Orleans that raise consciousness and promote sound policy around climate change.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization using grassroots action to create an informed, healthy society that hastens the transition from fossil fuels.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.