Activists Face Felony Charges for Blocking Houston Oil Tanker Corridor
Friday, September 20, 2019
Photo Credit: Greenpeace USA
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.
On September 12th, activists from Greenpeace USA descended on the Hartman Bridge in a highly visible protest against oil industry infrastructure and activity along the Houston Ship Channel. They hung from the bridge for 12 hours. Just before the Democratic Debate began, about 30 minutes away, over a dozen of them were arrested. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg decided to press charges, and serious ones at that. Felonies, no less. The DA has brought the charges under a new Texas law making it a felony to impede fossil fuel infrastructure dubbed “critical infrastructure” under the legislation.
The legislation, as reported here on The Real News previously, was proposed and passed in multiple states in 2019 and that’s no coincidence. Lobbied for by big oil, the legislation is an outgrowth of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 at the Standing Rock Native American reservation in North Dakota. The activists also faced federal misdemeanor charges for obstruction of navigable waters. Texas is now the second state to use the critical infrastructure protection act to throw the books at activists protesting fossil fuel infrastructure in an era of a climate emergency.
Here to talk all about this is Jonathan Butler, one of the Greenpeace activists facing these charges. Jonathan is the Democracy Campaigner for the Democracy, Peace and Justice team at Greenpeace USA. Thank you for joining us, Jonathan.
JONATHAN BUTLER: Thank you for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Jonathan, let’s start with the personal aspect of this and the experience that you personally had in participating in this action. What was it like to hang from the bridge, and what compelled you to take such a visible and apparently somewhat dangerous act, and why was this location in the Houston Ship Channel chosen?
JONATHAN BUTLER: The Houston Ship Channel is an important piece of the fossil fuel industry’s operation. Over 700,000 barrels a day go through that thoroughfare. The fact that about one third of the nation’s export of oil goes through that channel. So it’s a crucial piece of the fossil fuel industry’s structure. It’s also a piece of why we felt it was very necessary to take bold action because it’s a prime opportunity for us to be able to really stand strong and say, “Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re in a crisis right now. We need to take bold action and the fossil fuel industry has to be held accountable for the damage that they’re doing to our planet. And from what you can see from the Fred Hartman Bridge, the methane being burned off and floating into the communities across the channel, the impact that fossil fuel industry is having to people’s lives every single day.”
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Can you explain to us somewhat more detail what charges you’re facing, you and your fellow activists, and what the maximum potential penalties are?
JONATHAN BUTLER: We are facing the federal misdemeanor charge. Then we are also facing a state level felony charge, which is the critical infrastructure bill. The critical infrastructure bill is a part of a larger trend that’s been popping up across the nation, where we’re seeing secretive groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and also lobbyists and other people who are in support of the fossil fuel industry, pushing forth on legislation that’s anti-protest, anti-free speech, and putting together these measures to really discourage and chill people’s ability to peacefully protest.
Because oftentimes, when we’re seeing these critical infrastructure bills pop up, they’re not actually bills that are helpful. They’re duplicative for laws that are already on the books that would normally be considered maybe trespassing or maybe just a misdemeanor, are now being elevated to this ridiculous level of being a felony and carrying the weight of large fines and also a significant time in jail. So we’re seeing this concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry just to overlook the laws that are already on the books— such as trespassing when people are trying to just peacefully protest— and being elevated to this really horrific level just to chill people’s right to dissent.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Just to put a finer point on it, do you have an understanding of what the maximum prison term is under this critical infrastructure act?
JONATHAN BUTLER: I have to look more deeply into Texas specifically, but we’ve seen across the nation either it’s 180 days in prison. Some go all the way to $100,000 fine, plus 10 years in prison, so there’s a large range. But what we do know is that these laws are overly broad, they’re overly vague, and they’re just meant to really chill people’s ability to have free speech and peacefully protest.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Jonathan, there’s a bit of a sad irony here in that the action was motivated, as I understand it, to gain visibility before the Democratic Party Presidential Debate. Visibility, that is to say, for the climate emergency, and to draw attention to the main culprit in that emergency: the oil industry. This industry is not only involved in elevating, exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions, but also creating an environmental quagmire for people living along the Houston Ship Channel. The debate, however, featured, as I understand it, almost no time out of its three hours discussing climate change and what the candidates might do to deal with the climate emergency if elected. Were you hoping for more out of the debate, and why do you think we didn’t get more out of the debate?
JONATHAN BUTLER: We’re definitely aware of the moment that we’re in and the fact that this action was taking place on the same night as the Democratic debates. I think what it really speaks to, the fact that candidates did not mention it, did not even really give climate change the time that it needs to actually talk about it and talk about plans, I think just speaks to the larger issue of the fact that we really have to continue to do this work and continue to press our presidential hopefuls, and also elected officials who are already in office, to actually make climate change a priority and actually understand the crisis that we’re in.
Because it’s great that they had the climate forum, the town hall. It’s great that a lot of the candidates have come out with climate plans and strategies, but we’re really not looking for just talk. We’re actually looking for leaders who are going to stand up and do something, and actually take the bold action necessary. To see that folks didn’t actually take the time and take the care to actually speak on climate change and the issue, the impact that it’s having in our communities, is quite disappointing.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Jonathan Butler, an activist from Greenpeace USA who participated in an action in Houston recently, and who is now facing criminal charges for what it amounts to essentially peaceful civil disobedience. Thank you very much for joining us today, Jonathan.
JONATHAN BUTLER: Thank you for your time.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News.