Environmental activists who sabotage oil and gas pipelines to protect land, water, and the climate should be treated like out-and-out terrorists, according to 84 members of Congress who sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday.
The letter asks Sessions if he currently has enough power to treat pipeline sabotage as not only criminal but terrorist activity, encourages him to treat interference with pipeline systems as an assault on the United States’ national security, and seeks to define pipeline “terrorism” as any act that knowingly damages oil and gas infrastructure.
Such a broad definition could, if adopted, allow prosecutors to treat people who chain themselves to pipelines or construction equipment involved in pipeline projects as terrorists. The lawmakers are pressuring Sessions to include climate activists in a criminal category from which men like Charleston killer Dylann Roof and congressional baseball shooter James Hodgkinson are currently excluded by the legal system. (Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who narrowly survived Hodgkinson’s attack on Republican lawmakers this summer, co-signed the pipeline terrorism letter.)
While the letter cites a series of pipeline-cutting operations by radical environmentalists from last October as its primary motivation, the language contained in it would seem to envelop even the nonviolent resistance tactics employed by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies last year to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens to permanently destroy their water supply.
It is unsurprising that 80 Republicans from states heavily represented in the oil and gas industry seek dramatically harsher criminal treatment of environmental activists’ most radical and effective techniques. But four Democrats also signed the letter — Reps. Filemon Vela, Henry Cuellar, Gene Green, and Vicente Gonzalez, all members of the Texas delegation — giving the letter a blush of bipartisanship.
Of the four Democrat signers, only Gonzalez appears to not have a deep financial relationship with the oil and gas industry. The first-term congressman poured huge sums of his own money into his campaign, edging out another self-funded attorney in the Democratic primary before walking to a nearly 20-point win in November over his Republican challenger. His district is about as safely blue as any in Texas.
Vela, Cuellar, and Green, meanwhile, have been around long enough to see lots of big checks from oil companies. Green has received some $1.4 million from the broader energy and natural resources (ENR) sector of the economy over his quarter-century-long career in the House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Almost $750,000 of that came from oil and gas firms. Third-term member Vela’s $138,850 in ENR funding recorded in CRP’s data looks paltry in comparison. Cuellar, meanwhile, has taken almost $800,000 in ENR money in his seven-term career — three out of every four bucks coming from oil and gas companies, according the CRP figures.
The letter is likely to find a receptive ear from Sessions. Under Sessions, the Department of Justice is pursuing hundreds of serious felony charges against people in Washington, D.C. who were caught up in a mass arrest on Inauguration Day, an unprecedented move in a city where police and prosecutors have typically been much more selective about identifying individual malevolence when protests turn violent. The broader conservative movement has also endorsed the idea that we need more laws restricting protester rights and setting criminal penalties for activities historically understood as protected by the First Amendment, pursuing new curbs on protester rights at the state level in several legislatures.
Those smaller-scale attempts to pass new legislation have largely stalled to date, though President Donald Trump’s team still hopes to make dangerous policy changes to rules governing police-citizen interactions that would have far-reaching and chilling effects.
The pipeline crackdown idea has a more immediately insidious spin to it, however. The company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline is already looking to destroy environmentalism’s largest resistance bloc in court, seeking to convince a judge that Greenpeace owes them hundreds of millions of dollars. The case invokes laws designed to target organized crime to argue that Greenpeace’s work to disrupt drilling and pipeline projects cause criminal economic harm to the companies and shareholders they target. The case, being argued for the company by Trump’s personal attorney’s firm, echoes the dynamics of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s successful destruction of Gawker.
During their protest, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, while ultimately unsuccessful at stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built under their primary water source, drew headlines and support from around the country, including from U.S. military veterans. The Greenpeace lawsuit and tactics like it — including labeling pipeline protesters as terrorists — would flip the narrative and potentially undermine environmental activism writ large, Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard told ThinkProgress in an email.
“Corporations and their governmental enablers are desperate to silence dissent every way they can, through intimidation like this, abuses of the legal system like the SLAPP suit Energy Transfer Partners filed against Greenpeace and others, or the raft of proposed new laws designed to criminalize peaceful protest around the country,” Leonard said.
“This is more fear-mongering by a corporate bully hoping to see what it can get away with in Trump’s America,” Leonard said. “These pipelines threaten human and sovereign rights, compromise drinking water that millions of people rely on, potentially contaminate people’s land and livelihoods, and create more climate-charged superstorms affecting vulnerable communities around the world.”