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US Lawmakers Urge Attorney General To Look Into Prosecuting Environmentalists As Terrorists

Several members of Congress signed on to a letter recommending Attorney General Jeff Sessions look into whether the Justice Department has the laws it needs to prosecute environmental activists challenging pipelines as if they are terrorists.

The letter asks Sessions if the USA PATRIOT Act and Pipeline Safety Act contain enough provisions to criminalize actions against “energy infrastructure at the federal level.” It also asks if the Justice Department plans to prosecute any of the individuals involved in the alleged “attempted sabotage of four major crude oil pipelines in multiple states” on October 11, 2016.

“Do the attacks against the nation’s energy infrastructure, which pose a threat to human life, and appear to be intended to intimidate and coerce policy changes, fall within the DOJ’s understanding of [domestic terrorism]?” representatives add.

It appears to be an effort to convince the Justice Department to take a far greater role in helping energy interests and affiliated trade groups in their efforts to stamp out dissent against oil and gas operations.

Ken Buck, a representative from Colorado and one of the authors of the letter, has received over $400,000 from oil and gas industry interests in his political career.

While most of the representatives who signed on to the letter were Republicans, two were Democrats—Gene Green and Henry Cuellar, who are both from Texas. Cuellar has received nearly $600,000 from oil and gas interests in his political career.

The letter declares, “Recent incidents of individuals attempting to shut down lines by turning valves at pump stations illustrate the danger. Operation of pipeline facilities by unqualified personnel could result in a rupture—the consequences of which would be devastating. Even though some activists commit these acts of sabotage to raise awareness about climate change, they only create the serious risk of harm to the environment they claim to care about.”

It emphasizes the “risks to humans and the environment” posed by direct actions aimed at halting pipeline construction, which activists, community groups, or indigenous people believe pose a threat to their well-being and livelihood.

Sessions is a climate change denier. In 2014, he stated, “I don’t know we know enough now to answer this question conclusively either way, but there’s been a lot of exaggeration, there’s been a lot of hype, and people are feeling the crunch already in their electric bills…in our effort to stop storms that don’t seem to be going down, or to stop temperatures that don’t seem to be rising.”

He is sympathetic to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda of transforming the agency from an environmental protection agency into an agency run by the very industries it has traditionally regulated.

As Scientific American outlined, Sessions received “nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of his Senate career, according to the OpenSecrets.org campaign finance database. He has repeatedly voted in favor of expanding drilling and energy production.” He also supported legislation to eliminate the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

“Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant. It’s a plant food, and it doesn’t really harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases,” Sessions once opined, as he mocked EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. And Sessions sought to protect companies from investigations into whether they lied or concealed the effects of their business on climate change.

On October 11, 2016, five activists claimed that they shut down five pipelines in the United States that deliver tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. The direct action was undertaken in solidarity with indigenous people and activists fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline project by Energy Transfer Partners. They used “manual safety valves.”

Well before President Donald Trump was elected and empowered a cadre of corporate hawks to undermine environmental policies against climate change, activists argued such actions were necessary to convince political leaders or the courts that extraction and combustion of fossil fuels makes it near impossible to avert cataclysmic developments in the Earth’s temperature.

Multiple individuals facing prosecution for similar acts contend what they did was necessary to prevent imminent harm.

Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, was charged with a class-C felony of “inciting a riot” and a class-B misdemeanor of “criminal trespassing.” He was arrested on “unceded 1851 treaty land” near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on February 1.

“Given the Dakota Access pipeline’s imminent threat to my tribe’s and my family’s only water supply, I ultimately had no choice but to resist on the front lines,” Iron Eyes said. “Pipelines spill all too often, and our efforts to stop DAPL’s construction were thwarted by President Trump’s illegal intervention to cancel the Environmental Impact Statement that the Army Corps of Engineers had decided to prepare.”

Iron Eyes hopes a judge will let him argue civil disobedience was “his only recourse to resist the pipeline’s incursion on his ancestral lands.”

Environmental activists in Minnesota recently won the right to argue what they did was necessary to prevent harm. They were part of the October 11, 2016, actions to shut down pipelines.

Neither Iron Eyes nor the activists charged in Minnesota were charged with terrorism offenses, but oil and gas companies remain committed to harsher penalties.

In fact, Hunton & Williams, a law firm proud of its history representing companies or projects in the oil, gas, and liquefied national gas sectors, put out a press release a day after the October 11, 2016, actions that raises the same set of issues lawmakers did in their letter.

“Any person who knowingly and willfully damages or even attempts or conspires to damage or destroy an oil or gas pipeline or component may be subject to criminal prosecution under the federal Pipeline Safety Act, with sentencing of up to 20 years in prison and/or significant penalties,” the firm stated. “If a death results from such tampering, the individual may be sentenced to life in prison.

“Beyond civil and criminal liability, individuals damaging pipeline facilities could be investigated and/or prosecuted under other statutes depending on the circumstances, such as the PATRIOT Act or the Homeland Security Act for domestic acts of terrorism, as many pipelines have been designated as ‘critical energy infrastructure.'”

Energy Transfer Partners has labeled environmental activists challenging the Dakota Access Pipeline “terrorists.” They have sued Greenpeace, Bank Track, Earth First!, and other organizations to suppress their First Amendment activities against the pipeline project. They also contend the activists were engaged in an enterprise that involved inciting, funding, and facilitating “crimes and acts of terrorism.”

Corporations and their legal representatives have attempted to bolster a Green Scare by making Americans afraid of environmental activists. With the letter from lawmakers, it appears the Green Scare may be in the early stages of intensifying.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."