Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma,Wyoming, Minnesota and Louisiana have introduced or passed legislation to criminalize environmental dissent. There is evidence that bill mill organizations such as ALEC and the bipartisan group Council of State Governments (CSG) had their hand in shaping these bills says investigative journalist Steve Horne.

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In Minnesota, Louisiana, Wyoming, Iowa, and Ohio have all introduced bills that seek to criminalize pipeline protesters as eco terrorists. They have all introduced similar bills at the state legislature. The bills push for criminal punishment for up to 25 years in prison and a hundred thousand dollars in fines.

Our next guest says that Wyoming’s bill and these states’ bills are all a copy and paste version of the template legislation produced by the conservative corporate funded American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. It is predominantly funded by oil billionaire brothers David Koch and Charles Koch. The Koch’s are infamous for meddling in American politics, throwing millions of dollars at candidates who support their pro fossil fuel agenda. We have outlined this claim in a TRNN feature documentary titled Trump, the Koch Brothers, and Their War on Climate Science. The Kochs have supported the candidates of Vice President Mike Pence, head of the EPA Scott Pruitt, and the proposed new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, all climate change deniers who disavow the connection between burning of fossil fuels and human caused climate change.

With us to discuss these beliefs and the criminalization of dissent, and ALEC’s hand in disrupting our democracies is Steve Horn. He’s the former research fellow with deSmogBlog. Steve has taken up a new post as an investigative journalist for the online publication and magazines titled Criminal Legal News and Prison Legal News. Steve, good to have you with us.

STEVE HORN: Good to be back on, thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right Steve, let’s take up this bill. How do we know that this bill and versions of the bill introduced in different state legislatures come from ALEC?

STEVE HORN: Well, we know for a couple of, you know, maybe a few reasons. The first reason is the timing of the model bill, the Critical Infrastructure Act that passed in ALEC that dealt with these issues was in December. And so during that same month a similar type of model bill, what they call suggested state legislation and the Council of State Governments also passed, so these same bills passed in these sort of bill mill organizations. CSG, as it’s known, is more bipartisan. ALEC is of course most predominantly Republican Party members of state legislatures. So that bill passed through its environmental energy and agriculture task force in December. And then starting in January these bills started going through state legislatures. So first in Iowa and then in Ohio and then Wyoming, and now as of this week a couple more. Minnesota as well as Louisiana.

And the origin story of the ALEC bill is that often ALEC bills are kind of originals, they are talked about by lobbyists who attend ALEC’s annual meetings are funded by corporations. These are also corporate lobbyists for companies ranging the gamut of ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Chevron. It depends on the meeting, but lots of corporate lobbyists who get in the room with these state legislatures.

And so at that particular meeting that bill passed but did, you know, sometimes they are originals that pass there. At this meeting it was actually inspired by a bill that already passed in Oklahoma. They liked the idea of it. It passed in Oklahoma in the spring of 2017. And so ALEC, and then of course CSG as I mentioned, both took it up as their model bills. From there, of course, now it’s moved in multiple state Houses.

I think what’s important to point out is that in a lot of these cases it’s of course mostly Republican Party members pushing it, but it has gotten some Democratic Party support in all of these state Houses to some degree. And so I think that’s why it’s important to mention the Council of State Governments, which is more bipartisan than ALEC, as an organization.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now Steve, I understand that this bill was designed in response to the massive and long lasting protests at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline owned by Energy Transfer Partners. And we saw very aggressive police tactics in dealing with these protesters. A number of people arrested, including journalists, journalists that work with TRNN as well. Now talk about the events that triggered these bills.

STEVE HORN: Right. So Oklahoma is a really good example of sort of looking back at the origins of this and looking back to Standing Rock in the to access the Energy Transfer Partners. So Oklahoma is a huge oil and gas state. It’s the headquarters of the major company Continental Resources, which is owned by Harold Hamm. He was a top energy adviser for Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. And he has a lot of his oil flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline because most of the oil drilling that he does the United States through Continental Resources happens in the Bakken Shale, which is starting point of the Access Pipeline.

So all of that said, Oklahoma was sort of a friendly state for them to get a bill like this through, super friendly for oil and gas in their state legislature. Of course they have an oil rig in front of their state capitol, infamously to some people, famously to others. But all of that said, it passed pretty easily. There was some debate over it but it did pass through. Two different bills actually, which is important to point out. There’s a bill that gives civil liability for doing protests on “critical land” that contains critical infrastructure, so things like refineries, pipelines, LNG, terminals, etc. There’s civil liability. One of those in Oklahoma was that. Another one was criminal liability. Both of those passed Oklahoma. And then looking forward that the actual ALEC model bill combines those two bills into one. So the model bills that are passing in other states you don’t have to pass two bills in these states. They contain provisions both about civil liabilities and criminal liabilities.

And another thing to mention, I don’t think this was in the Oklahoma bill but it’s a newer thing that’s been added to all these other bills, is conspiracy. So say you’re an environmental organization, or maybe you are a Native American tribe. If you funded activists or in some way gave funding for them, raised money, whatever, for the people that end up ended up committing this “crime,” protesting on the critical infrastructure. You also can be held liable for tens of thousands of dollars. And that’s a provision that was in the Wyoming bill. It’s in this new bill in Minnesota. And it’s , more broadly we’re looking back at the origin of this, Energy Transfer Partners. They filed a major lawsuit against Greenpeace against the Indigenous Environmental Network, against Earth First, and others for the same exact thing. Conspiracy under RICO, or the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. And so there’s an ongoing lawsuit in federal court. They’re saying that the actions that happened at Standing Rock cost Energy Transfer Partners hundreds of millions of dollars and therefore they should be held liable for that under RICO.

So this is of course an act that originally started because of the activity of the mob and organized crime. So all of that said, the same sort of, the spirit of that is now found in these bills that are moving through state Houses. And the last thing I’ll say is that in Wyoming this is so controversial that it was actually vetoed by its Republican governor Matt Mead, and it was, kind of came under some criticism actually, from even some industry attorneys in the state who were members of Republican Party who thought it was just a bridge too far in terms of potential overreach and abuse of freedom of assembly and free speech.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. Finally, what’s the likelihood of this passing in other states? Good thing that the Wyoming governor had vetoed it. But what are the chances that it’ll pass in other states given that this violates First Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution, which of course protects freedom of speech and freedom of assembly? And as you said if they include conspired to then of course even meeting to organize protests would be criminalized.

STEVE HORN: Yeah, well, so for example in the state of Iowa it’s passed in the Senate already. It’s being considered now in the amendment process in the House of Representatives. Unclear what the governor would do there. Louisiana has an interesting one that just unrolled this week in terms of an introduction. That’s another key Energy Transfer Partners state. There’s a pipeline that connects to that access pipeline there called the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which has been hotly contested by indigenous people and by people on the ground in Louisiana.

So I think that in a state like Louisiana that’s very oil and gas friendly a bill like that would have potentially a better chance of passage, say, than in a state like Minnesota. But yeah, I think it’s important to just look at this trend. Minnesota is a state that has protests over the line. Three pipeline owned by Enbridge. And has been a battleground for indigenous peoples over pipelines and infrastructure. So it’s no accident that these bills are being introduced in these states. Whether or not they would eventually be signed by a governor remains to be seen. But I think that it’s interesting. One would think in Wyoming something like that would sail through, would be signed by the governor and became state law. But even in that state it came under fire by some conservatives, enough so that it was vetoed by the governor. So it’s one of those things that if there’s enough sunlight and pressure by various stakeholders that maybe they won’t go through. But at the same time this has already passed in the state of Oklahoma and is state law. It almost became state law in Wyoming. So these are very contentious battles to watch for in the weeks and months ahead.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Steve. I thank you so much for joining us, and please do join us again for another segment we’re going to do with Steve on the hidden hand of the oil industry, who are now more than ever entrenched in the presidential administration of President Trump.

Thank you so much for joining us, Steve. Please join us for segment two.

STEVE HORN: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.