Politicians responsible for drafting laws criminalizing pipeline protests in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Minnesota did so after receiving significant funding from the fossil fuel industry, according to a new report by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The major pipelines studied in the report disproportionately impact historically disenfranchised communities who, in turn find themselves potentially targeted by the protest criminalization measures, often framed as efforts to protect “critical infrastructure,” the report details.
“Under the premise of protecting infrastructure projects,” the Institute wrote, “these laws mandate harsh charges and penalties for exercising constitutional rights to freely assemble and to protest.”
Marathon Petroleum, one of three large fossil fuel companies the report names as driving state-level efforts to criminalize pipeline protests,is also facing new allegations of electoral wrong-doing in the form of a Federal Election Commission complaint alleging that the company made over $1 million in contributions to Republican super PACs that are barred by rules preventing federal contractors from providing that sort of funding.
Industry funding flows to bill sponsors
The past decade has seen a glut of new pipeline construction in the U.S. More than 80,000 miles of major new pipelines, like interstate gas transmission lines and oil pipelines, have been built across the U.S., federal data shows — enough to crisscross the country from the coast to coast roughly 30 times. That’s not including over 400,000 miles of smaller gas distribution and service pipes laid across the nation during that time.
These new projects have often been dogged by controversy, both due to local opposition and because the climate crisis has spurred a needed transition away from the fossil fuels that would be carried in those pipes.
In the face of that opposition, 13 states have passed laws since 2017 designed to criminalize protests specifically related to oil and gas projects. At least three states — Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia — have pushed forward on their “critical infrastructure” protest criminalization bills since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The report from the Institute for Policy Studies focuses on critical infrastructure laws passed or introduced in Louisiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia, three states where controversies over major pipeline projects have simmered. It follows the flow of money from the backers of major pipeline projects underway in each state to local politicians.
It finds that, for example, in Louisiana, HB727, now law, was drafted by the President of Louisiana’s Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, introduced by a representative whose third-highest contributor was the oil and gas industry. The bill was signed by Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who received $94,750 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry — including Energy Transfer, builder of the Bayou Bridge pipeline project — prior to signing the bill into law.
The Bayou Bridge pipeline connects two petrochemical hubs in communities of color, including Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” and it passes through census tracts where Black residents have a poverty rate that’s more than twice the national rate.
Bayou Bridge isn’t the only pipeline whose path runs through marginalized communities, the report says.
Enbridge’s Line 3 in Minnesota “cuts through dense clusters of Ojibwe and Chippewa Reservations,” the report finds, and “37 percent of the Indigenous population residing in the census tracts along Line 3 live below the poverty line, which is more than three times the national poverty rate.”
And in West Virginia, the average poverty rate in the census tracts that the Mountain Valley pipeline runs through is 15 percent; that’s roughly 25 percent higher than the U.S. average.
“One tract in west Harrison County, toward the beginning of the pipeline, has a life expectancy of less than 65 years,” the report notes. “Salem, the largest city in this area, which the pipeline path skims, has the lowest average life expectancy in all of North Central West Virginia. Residents there are only expected to live an average of 63 years.”
West Virignia’s governor, Jim Justice, had brought in $21,000 from the oil and gas industry before he signed West Virginia’s critical infrastructure bill, the report notes, adding that his top donors included Marathon Petroleum, Dominion Energy, and EQT, the builder of the Mountain Valley pipeline.
“These anti-protest laws elevate typical misdemeanor charges against peaceful protesters, such as trespassing, into felonies,” the report says about critical infrastructure legislation, noting that bills create criminal conspiracy liability in ways that could be extremely broad. “They also hijack the idea of ‘critical infrastructure protection,’ a term that has historically meant safeguarding vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges from dangers like natural disasters, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.”
Legal experts have warned that critical infrastructure laws may well be unconstitutional. “Some statutes, like Louisiana’s, include provisions noting that ‘lawful assembly’ is protected by the U.S. Constitution,” Jenna Ruddock wrote in a December 2019 American University Law Review article, “but such provisions do little to clarify for the public exactly when, where, and how these critical infrastructure laws might transform an ordinary act of protest into a felony.”
In 2018, over a dozen Bayou Bridge opponents were charged with felonies under Louisiana’s critical infrastructure bill. A handful of those protesters later sued after their charges were dismissed, and earlier this month, a federal judge allowed that lawsuit to go forward.
Frontline communities have played a major role in the opposition to new pipelines and the report warns that critical infrastructure bills represent yet another layer of criminalization that marginalized communities face.
The report’s authors connect that criminalization to broader patterns of criminalization of communities of color. “As Black Lives Matter and environmental protesters are met with paramilitary police repression and draconian felony charges,” said Gabrielle Colchete, who co-authored the report, “state legislatures are also passing ‘Critical Infrastructure Protection’ laws that conflate civil disobedience with heinous, felony acts.”
It names Marathon Petroleum, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries as “among the three most active companies involved in lobbying for the passage of ‘critical infrastructure protection’ laws nationwide.”
Marathon accused of illegal contributions to super PACs
The report comes amid new allegations that Marathon may have violated campaign finance laws with its donations to federal Republicans.
On Wednesday, October 28, the same day the Institute for Policy Studies report was published, elections watchdog the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Marathon had unlawfully contributed $1 million to two Republican Super PACs. Half went to the Senate Leadership Fund and half to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the complaint alleges.
The problem with those contributions, according to the complaint, is that Marathon is a federal contractor — and federal contractors are prohibited from contributing to political committees while their contracts are being negotiated or performed. The complaint cites a contract between Marathon and the Department of Defense worth up to nearly $2 million, running from February 2020 through April 2021; Marathon’s $500,000 political contributions were made this July and August, while that contract would have beenunderway.
A spokesperson for Marathon did not immediately respond to questions from DeSmog about the filing.
Those donations, incidentally, came not long after it was revealed that Marathon was one of the recipients of a “stealth bailout” of oil companies buried in the stimulus bill that Congress passed in March as COVID-19 shutdowns swept the country.
In June, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote a letter to Michael Hennigan, president and CEO of Marathon Petroleum, asking the company to answer questions about how it had lobbied on the CARES Act (the coronavirus relief package), specifically its tax code provisions, and about how Marathon had later benefited financially, saying that Marathon had “claimed a $411 million windfall” from the tax code changes inserted in the CARES Act.
Marathon has previously defended its lobbying on that bill. “MPC did not lobby for any CARES Act provisions to specifically favor our company or our industry,” a spokesperson told the Star Tribune earlier in June. “We did ask that if there were any broader tax relief provisions that were afforded to other manufacturers or industries, that our industry not be excluded. Although we did not request any benefit, we are obligated to follow the tax laws as passed by Congress, which apply to corporate manufacturers nationwide.”
Hennigan’s role in another pipeline scandal — this one in Pennsylvania — has also been in the news this month.
Before joining Marathon in 2017, Hennigan ran Energy Transfer’s Sunoco Pipeline LP subsidiary, the builder of two troubled pipeline projects in Pennsylvania, the still-ongoing Mariner East project and the Revolution pipeline.
At the end of last year,the Associated Press first reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was investigating how Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration had approved permits for the Mariner East project, though little was known at the time about the details of the investigation.
On October 19, more details about that permit process emerged in an E&E News investigation, as documents from Pennsylvania’s environmental regulators, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), showed potentially unusual pressure to issue the permits for Mariner East.
“Staffers at DEP were told they should ‘put off high priority projects/and all other work’ in favor of Mariner East 2, according to meeting notes, because the agency needed ‘all hands on deck,’” E&E reported, describing pressure within DEP to issue the permits by mid-February — the same time that Sunoco and Energy Transfer were slated to release financial results.
And in fact, those permits were issued before that earnings call. “‘We are very pleased to report that construction has begun on our Mariner East 2 project throughout Pennsylvania,’ Hennigan said in a Feb. 23, 2017, conference call,” E&E reported, “after receiving the PA DEP Chapter 102 and 105 permits.”
The Mariner East project has been plagued by construction delays and accidents, as well as by protests — but it was a catastrophe on another of the company’s projects that has driven home the risks associated with large pipeline projects in the region.
On September 10, 2018, the Revolution pipeline in Beaver County outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ignited into a massive 150-foot tall column of fire, destroying a home, a barn, and several cars as some in the neighborhood barely escaped with their lives.
Revolution had gone into service just eight days earlier — and since then, questions have swirled about potential improprieties in the pipeline’s permitting process, with the state DEP revoking the permit authority of a local board that had approved one of Revolution’s permits following a scathing audit.
“Micheal Hennigan and the oil corporations lobbying for these bills are obviously trying to criminalize dissent, not protect public health,” said Jesse Coleman, a senior researcher with Documented, a watchdog group. “Look at what has actually caused pipeline explosions, leaks, and other problems — it’s not the oil industry critics.”
“These projects are dangerous by design,” Coleman added, “and trying to shift the focus to boogeymen protesters is a cheap trick to avoid scrutiny.”