Pipeline protest bill opponents hope for veto

Environmentalists and tribes criticize Dems, appeal to Evers

"Pipeline protest" by frances.grogan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As a controversial bill escalating penalties for trespassing on pipeline sites looks increasingly likely to pass the Wisconsin legislature, critics of the measure are shifting their focus to trying to persuade Gov. Tony Evers to veto it.

Pipeline presser
Organizations opposing SB 386, speak to reporters before the Senate hearing Tuesday.

On Tuesday, a state Senate hearing on the Senate version of the bill, SB 386, was essentially a replay of an Assembly hearing in September, with some of the same witnesses giving testimony from some of the same scripts, for and against the legislation. 

One difference Tuesday was a broader, more organized criticism of the bills from environmental organizations and allies. Prior to the Senate hearing, which started at noon and ran for more than two hours, a coalition of environmental groups, joined by a representative of an American Indian tribal band that is suing one pipeline operator, held a press conference urging senators to vote against the bill. 

Several speakers said that if it were to pass, Evers should veto the legislation.  

SB 386 and its identical Assembly companion bill, AB 426, expand on Act 158 passed in 2015. The earlier law broadened the definition of “utility” under state law to include an “energy provider” generating, transmitting or distributing electricity and natural gas. It made trespassing on or damaging the property of those operations a felony. 

The new bills expand the coverage of the earlier act to include oil, petroleum, water and renewable fuel facilities. Despite the broad scope of the bills, virtually all of the discussion for or against them has centered on oil transmission pipelines — a flash point for protests over issues ranging from local water pollution to indigenous land rights to escalating global warming from fossil fuels. 

The bills set penalties of $10,000 in fines and six years in prison for violators who trespass on or cause damage to designated facilities. The bills’ supporters, including representatives of the oil industry and, in Wisconsin, unions whose members were in those industries, have claimed workers on job sites have faced hazards from damaged equipment and violent confrontations by some protesters.

A section in each bill asserts that charges and penalties would not apply to people monitoring compliance with worker rights, safety laws and other laws, or people who are lawfully picketing in a labor dispute, doing union organizing or engaging in “otherwise lawful” free speech. 

Quashing protest

Critics of the legislation say they don’t trust it to be applied impartially, but expect it instead to be used to intimidate protesters and prevent them from taking part in peaceful demonstrations for fear of arrest. Some have also acknowledged protesters have sometimes engaged in nonviolent direct action civil disobedience aimed at disrupting pipeline operations in order to stop the greater harm that they see in continued extraction and use of fossil fuels.

“Over and over, we’ve seen peaceful, nonviolent protests met with militarization, threats of violence and actual violence from some of these corporate mechanisms,” said Mike Wiggins Jr., chair of the Bad River Band of Chippewa, at Tuesday morning’s press briefing organized by the Sierra Club. “And in reality, this bill sends a message and sends a dagger into a constitutional right, the First Amendment right in that whole notion of peaceful, nonviolent gathering.”

Wiggins’ tribe is currently suing the Canadian oil pipeline company Enbridge Inc. in a dispute over its use of Bad River Band land for which the tribe says the company has no current leasing rights. 

The tribal chair noted that when Mark Dayton was governor of neighboring Minnesota, he vetoed similar legislation there. “We’re definitely looking for the governor to stand up and veto this should it pass,” he said. 

Wiggins wasn’t the first speaker to bring up the prospect of an Evers’ veto. 

Robert Lee of Midwest Environmental Advocates said the legislation poses a threat to landowners when pipelines are on their land. While pipeline operators are required to have an agreement with the owner of a property they use to route their line, “Landowners in the state of Wisconsin have already been arrested on their own property even when the pipeline doesn’t have a lease,” Lee said. “All you have to do, really, is ask yourself whether or not that’s right. And the answer is, no. And that’s why we’re calling on the Senate to stop this bill — and if they won’t, for the governor to veto it.”

Leah Qusba, executive director of the Alliance for Climate Education, said activists were hopeful that Evers would do just that. She noted that the governor and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes last week announced a state task force to address climate change. “This is the perfect first example of where the governor’s office can really step up and utilize all of the movement building that’s taking place though that climate task force and just the perfect example of where he can make the right decision.”

Van Wanggaard
Sen Van Wanggaard chairs the hearing on the pipeline trespassing bill Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee’s public hearing on the bill began a couple of hours after the press conference. Despite its length and the impassioned critique of several witnesses who testified both for and against the legislation, it had an anti-climactic air to it.

Only two committee members were present for most of the hearing, chair Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) — who stepped down briefly to give the opening testimony for the bill — and vice-chair Andre Jacque (R-DePere). 

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) was absent. Sens. Fred Risser (D-Madison) and Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), had participated by telephone earlier in the committee meeting for hearings on other bills and for a confirmation hearing for Parole Commission Chair-designee John Tate II, but both appeared to have dropped out by the time of the SB-386 hearing.  

Democrats face criticism

As the focus turns to whether Evens will or won’t sign the legislation, a couple of Democratic lawmakers who signed on as cosponsors of one or the other of the companion bills have become the targets of sharp criticism from the opponents of the measure.

One who has responded to critics is Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), the state Senate assistant minority leader and a co-sponsor SB 386. 

“I’m not a fascist. I’m not in bed with the oil companies,” Bewley told a group of citizens who confronted her at an Oct. 15 Price County Democratic Party meeting in an encounter that was captured in a series of videos posted on YouTube. One man who was there responded, “Unless you somehow repent for this bill, you’re implicated.” 

In correspondence with constituents who have written to criticize her support of the measure that Bewley’s office shared with Wisconsin Examiner, Bewley has defended it, saying the bill “makes it less likely that anyone would face a felony and that’s why I cosponsored it.” 

Noting that she had voted against the 2015 bill — as well as against another bill that allowed pipeline companies to benefit from eminent domain — Bewley stated that she cosponsored the current legislation because of the exemptions that SB 386 and its Assembly companion added protecting monitoring safety and work laws, as well as union activity. 

A broad coalition of labor unions reached out and asked me to sign onto a bill that expands the current definition of energy provider to include pipelines. Workers on pipelines feel more and more unsafe due to an increase in reported incidents of vandalism that jeopardize not only their safety, but the public’s safety as well,” Bewley stated, adding links to news reports on incidents at work sites “where workers felt threatened.” Her response concludes: “After consulting with various stakeholders, I agreed to add my name as a co-sponsor.”

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism.

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