Committee passes pipeline protest bill with only one Democrat voting no

    Photo by Intermountain Region US Forest Service, licensed under CC PDM 1.0
    Sen. Fred Risser headshot
    Sen. Fred Risser

    The Senate version of a bill that would enhance criminal penalties for  trespassing on pipeline sites and other energy- or water-related infrastructure passed out of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday on a 4-1 paper-ballot vote.

    Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) cast the lone vote against SB 386, which has been promoted by the petroleum industry and other business groups, as well as by labor unions whose members work in that industry. The bill is opposed by a coalition of environmental groups and by at least one Native American tribal group, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. 

    “I voted ‘No’ on SB 386 because we already have laws regarding trespassing,” Risser said in a statement released by his office. “Given this, I simply believe the measure to be unnecessary.”

    Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), the only other Democrat on the committee, voted for the measure, along with the three Republicans on the panel: Sens. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), the committee chair and a sponsor of the bill; André Jacque (R-DePere); and Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).

    Risser is the first legislator in either house to vote against the legislation in committee. The Assembly version of the bill, AB 426, earlier passed the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee without dissent; the Assembly later approved it on a voice vote, with four Democrats registering opposition. 

    Sponsors of the legislation include Democrats as well as Republicans in both houses, but Democrats supporting the bill have come under sharp criticism from activists who oppose it.

    The legislation expands 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, punishable by up to 6 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. 

    The new bills expand the coverage of the earlier act to include oil, petroleum, water and renewable fuel facilities, but the focus of the debate about them has centered on protests at the sites of oil transmission pipelines. They are similar to a series of bills passed in several other states that increase penalties for trespassing on such sites.

    With the momentum that appears to be behind the measure, pressure from both sides is likely to mount on Gov. Tony Evers to sign or veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. Opponents have already called on Evers to veto it. 

    Advocates for the bills — including the labor unions who have come out in support of them — have claimed that protesters on pipeline sites have damaged equipment and interfered with operations in ways hazardous to workers.

    Critics of the bills contend those instances have been blown out of proportion and that their real purpose is to silence protests and acts of civil disobedience.

    The legislation includes a section stating that it doesn’t apply to so-called lawful protests, to inspections for safety, or to lawful union picketing or organizing. Critics of the bill contend that despite the disclaimer, the bill is likely to intimidate protesters and have a chilling effect on free speech.

    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.