Ohio Passes Fossil Fuel-backed Anti-protest Legislation

The bill would criminalize protests by groups and individuals at pipelines and other energy infrastructure.

by | Dec 21, 2020

A pipeline under construction in Medina, Ohio (credit: JZ Hunt)

Update: Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill into law January 11, 2021.

Barring a last-minute veto from Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio is poised to become the fourteenth state to pass legislation criminalizing pipeline protests by both individuals and organizations.

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 33, would allow operators of facilities deemed “critical infrastructure” to initiate civil actions against protesters “who willfully [cause] damage” to those facilities, including non-violently trespassing on the surrounding property. Protesters found guilty could face fines and charges for damages including court costs and attorney’s fees.

The bill passed the state Senate in 2019, but after meeting with fierce opposition in the House of Representatives, saw no action for nearly a year.

On Dec. 17 the House passed the bill by 55 to 30 with no fanfare. Only one Democratic lawmaker approved SB 33, while no Republicans voted against.

“Putting non-violent trespass on the same level as violent or destructive acts only serves infrastructure and pipeline developers. There’s no benefit to the public at all,” said Connor Gibson, who tracked anti-protest laws for two years as a researcher at Greenpeace, before leaving to start Grassrootbeer Investigations. “There were no citizen groups or rallies pushing for these bills. The only ones asking for it were companies affiliated with pipelines in some way.”

Documents obtained by freedom of information requests by Jamie Corey at Documented, along with research by Gibson, have exposed that fossil fuel industry lobbyists for SB 33 included the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, and First Energy. Representatives from Koch Industries and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity also met about the legislation with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Hoagland, without registering as lobbyists.

First Energy has been under scrutiny amid a federal racketeering and corruption indictment against Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R), who is alleged to have taken $60 million in bribes to ensure passage of House Bill 6, a 2019 law authorizing a $1.3 billion taxpayer bailout of bankrupt nuclear and coal plants. It’s the biggest political corruption scandal in Ohio history.

The genesis of SB 33 goes back to early 2017, when the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, began drafting its “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act”, just months after protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

By December 2017, fossil fuel industry groups were lobbying members of ALEC, which drafts and lobbies for pro-industry model legislation, to push the model anti-protest bill out to state legislators.

The model bill designates all aspects of the fossil fuel supply chain “critical infrastructure,” from pipelines to ethane cracker facilities, and then increases fines and charges for anyone caught near these facilities.

Gibson said he expects that efforts to pass similar bills in other states will continue in 2021.

As Drilled News reported earlier this year, the American Petroleum Institute has tried to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a platform for declaring all parts of the fossil fuel supply chain “critical infrastructure” at the national level.

In testimony in favor of SB 33 earlier this year, Rep. Hoagland repeated various talking points that industry groups have also used to justify these bills. Hoagland argued that the bill was not aimed at restricting protected free speech, but “at those who cross the line and intentionally damage critical infrastructure and, in turn, place the facilities and more importantly the lives of workers and/or the general public in jeopardy.”

Hoagland did not respond to a request for comment.

Dan Tierney, press officer for Governor DeWine, said that the governor is “reviewing the proposal” for SB 33.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.