Pipeline bill’s backers, critics both lobby Evers as signing deadline nears

    A man protests against a pumpjack representing the oil industry.
    A man protests against a pumpjack representing the energy industry. (Getty royalty free)

    Pressure is building on Gov. Tony Evers from both backers and critics of a controversial bill that would make it a felony for protesters to trespass on pipeline sites and other forms of energy and water-transmission infrastructure.

    Gov. Tony Evers

    Assembly Bill 426 formally reached Evers’ office Thursday, Nov. 14, giving him one week to sign or veto the legislation. The measure, which was pushed heavily by business groups, particularly in the petroleum industry, passed overwhelmingly on voice votes and with bipartisan support in both the Assembly and the state Senate.  

    But despite the swift and lopsided legislative approval, opposition has been vocal.

    While the bill is worded broadly, it is mainly aimed at protesters who have targeted oil pipelines in Wisconsin and elsewhere, engaging at times in civil disobedience to disrupt their construction or operation. Similar legislation has been passed in at least seven states and been introduced in others.

    In Wisconsin, the legislation has been especially notable for having drawn support from some labor unions, whose members work in the industry and who have complained of threats to their safety, and Democrats with close ties to those unions. 

    Opposition has primarily been drawn from environmental and civil liberties groups, joined by Wisconsin Native American bands. Critics of the bill have asserted that threats of danger to pipeline workers have been overblown and that the bill’s real purpose is to intimidate lawful, peaceful protesters, not just those who might commit acts of vandalism or violence that the bill refers to.

    Since the bill’s final passage by the Senate, both sides have been lobbying the governor’s office heavily. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement the day after it passed condemning the measure. On Monday, Nov. 11, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa hand-delivered a letter to Evers also urging a veto and calling the bill “an illegal taking of Bad River lands.” Other tribal groups are also reported to be planning similar letters. 

    Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a coalition of business and union supporters of the legislation sent a letter of their own complaining that as a result of protests on pipeline project sites, “Workers — usually skilled, union tradesmen and tradeswomen — are increasingly feeling unsafe and are seeing their equipment and even their own personal property being damaged.”

    So far the governor has not yet tipped his hand on how he plans to act.

    Lawmakers and lobbyists opposed to the bill, however, have said that a veto would be consistent with Evers having established task forces on clean water as well as on climate change. In addition, while only three Democratic senators went on record as voting ‘no’ in the Senate’s voice vote on the legislation, all 14 Democrats voted for an amendment that would have significantly limited how it could be applied. Although the amendment failed, the legislation’s critics have pointed to that vote as evidence that Evers could veto it without risking an override.

    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. At the Examiner office first thing in the morning, he's the one with YoutTube on streaming Springsteen concerts, 1970s Americana rock and the occasional British Progressive music cuts in between model railroad how-to clips. So far his campaign to build an HO layout in the our office conference space has produced only pats on the head and eyerolls from his colleagues, but he loves them anyway.