Legislature approves bumping pipeline tampering penalties
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature approved a proposal Monday that would increase the legal penalties for people who tamper with pipelines and groups that help them.
The House voted 76-14 to send GOP Gov. Doug Burgum a bill that more clearly defines that it’s illegal to tamper with “critical infrastructure,” which includes everything from pipelines to cellphone towers to drinking water sources. Burgum hasn’t signaled if he’ll sign it.
The bill says someone who intentionally tampers with infrastructure faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. It also increases those fines up to $100,000 for an organization found to have conspired with multiple individuals.
Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal of Edinburg said she sponsored the bill after an environmental activist shut off an emergency valve on the TransCanada Keystone oil pipeline that runs through her district. Seattle resident Michael Foster was sentenced to a year in prison but only served six months.
“There was frustration from law enforcement and residents that there wasn’t enough teeth in current law to go after these people and the organizations that support them,” Myrdal said.
Foster, 54, cut through a chain-link fence and turned a shut-off valve on the pipeline in northeastern North Dakota on Oct. 11, 2016. His action was part of a four-state protest to draw attention to climate change and support demonstrations in southern North Dakota against the Dakota Access pipeline. Foster was part of a group of 11 climate change activists who called themselves Climate Direct Action and simultaneously turned shut-off valves on five pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Washington state that carry Canadian tar sands crude into the U.S.
Foster was convicted of conspiracy, criminal mischief and trespass. Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, who filmed Foster’s protest, was sentenced to two years of probation for conspiracy.
Myrdal said she patterned the bill after existing laws in other states that provide penalties specifically for tampering with critical infrastructure. Oklahoma passed a law that carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Louisiana last year passed a similar law, and several other states are considering such measures.
Foster said Monday the increased penalties in North Dakota “absolutely” would not have stopped him.
“I did what I did knowing it was possible to go to prison,” Foster said Monday. “It was an act of moral conscience” to “inspire people to stop using fossil fuels.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s North Dakota chapter called the bill “anti-protest legislation” that “will punish association, violate freedom of assembly and almost certainly stifle protected speech.”
“At best, this bill is entirely unnecessary,” the ACLU said in a statement. “At worst, it is meant to chill speech. Existing law already prohibits trespass and malicious destruction of property and conspiracies to commit the same.”