Environment

Acts of civil disobedience against pipeline operations in Kentucky would be considered a felony under legislation filed ahead of the 2020 regular session.

The measure comes less than a month after one person was killed and six more were injured in a large pipeline explosion south of Danville, Kentucky. It also comes shortly after Louisville Gas & Electric began pursuing eminent domain actions to build a natural gas pipeline in northern Bullitt County.

Republican Rep. Jim Gooch, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, pre-filed the bill in late August after a similar attempt failed earlier this year. Gooch did not immediately return requests for comment.

The bill makes trespassing on “key infrastructure assets” including pipelines a second degree felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

Advocates for the measure say the bill is designed to protect critical infrastructure; opponents including indigenous groups and the American Civil Liberties Union say the legislation is an attempt to curtail free speech.

“The concern we have is that it is being done as a way to chill free speech and target protesters who are engaged in protected speech,” said ACLU of Kentucky legal director Corey Shapiro.

The bill is part of a national initiative to increase penalties for activists who attempt to block fossil fuel infrastructure projects, similar to the Standing Rock protests that impeded construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Shapiro said the ACLU currently has lawsuits filed to block similar legislation in Texas and South Dakota.

Oklahoma first passed the anti-pipeline protest legislation in 2017. It has since become model legislation on the website for The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative legislative nonprofit.

The language on ALEC’s website is substantially similar to the language included in Gooch’s bill. Both make it a felony to trespass with the intention to tamper with, impede or inhibit operations of an infrastructure asset such as a pipeline, an oil refinery or a natural gas compressor station.

Both also create civil penalties for any person that helps protesters. That could mean something as simple as providing water, first aid or food to protesters who engage in trespassing.

“That means anybody, including churches, that send supplies to the front lines, to the people that need it,” said Frankie Orona, Executive Director of the Society of Native Nations.

Orona has been fighting similar legislation that recently took effect in Texas. He said the penalties are a deterrent to silence protesters and activists.

“These bills, they favor the fossil fuel industry and the corporations over people,” Orona said. “They want to call activists, environmentalists, protectors, they want to call them eco-terrorists for trying to protect the land, the water, the air.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.