First Amendment Loses as Pipeline Industry Scores Another Win in Wisconsin

Joseph Bullington December 5, 2019

A pincer of police closes in on the front line camp, built on unceded Indian land north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, on October 27, 2016.

A recent pair of Unit­ed Nations cli­mate reports make at least one thing clear: It is crit­i­cal that we stop con­struct­ing new fos­sil fuels infrastructure.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some peo­ple seem to have mis­read the warn­ings: On Nov. 20, Wisconsin’s gov­er­nor, Tony Evers, a Demo­c­rat, signed a law that, instead of penal­iz­ing oil pipelines, penal­izes pro­test­ers who dis­rupt the con­struc­tion of such crit­i­cal infrastructure.”

The new law makes it a felony, pun­ish­able by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to six years in prison, to tres­pass on the prop­er­ty of an oil pipeline or stor­age facility.

The Wis­con­sin law did not gen­er­ate in a vac­u­um. The bill, which is sim­i­lar to mod­el crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture” leg­is­la­tion pro­mot­ed by the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), was a response to the Lako­ta-led upris­ing at Stand­ing Rock, N.D., against the Dako­ta Access Pipeline, dur­ing which pro­test­ers built a sprawl­ing camp in the pipeline’s path, chained them­selves to con­struc­tion equip­ment and marched onto the pipeline right-of-way to halt con­struc­tion. After Stand­ing Rock, indus­try groups such as Koch Indus­tries, Marathon Petro­le­um Cor­po­ra­tion and Ener­gy Trans­fer Part­ners mount­ed a lob­by­ing cam­paign in state leg­is­la­tures across the coun­try to advo­cate such anti-protest laws.

The effort has been suc­cess­ful. Accord­ing to Green­peace, Wis­con­sin is the 10th state to insti­tute such a law, and at least 13 oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing sim­i­lar measures.

But that’s not the only con­text that mat­ters. The lat­est U.N. Emis­sions Gap report, issued Tues­day, made head­lines with its bleak” find­ing that because the Earth’s gov­ern­ments have failed to cut emis­sions in the last decade, steep­er cuts are now required much more quick­ly if the world hopes to avoid cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change. Accord­ing to the New York Times, the report found that even if every coun­try ful­fills its cur­rent pledge under the Paris Agree­ment, aver­age tem­per­a­tures would be on track to rise by 3.2° Cel­sius above the base­line tem­per­a­ture at the start of the indus­tri­al age. Bleak­er still, many coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States, which has begun to offi­cial­ly pull out of the agree­ment, are not on track to meet their mod­est pledges under the Paris Agreement.

Bizarrely, even as they pledge to reduce emis­sions, many sig­na­to­ries to the Paris cli­mate accord con­tin­ue to ramp up fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion. Accord­ing to the U.N. Pro­duc­tion Gap report — issued on Nov. 20, the same day that Gov. Evers signed the bill to squelch pipeline protests — the Earth’s gov­ern­ments plan to extract 50% more fos­sil fuels by 2030 than would be con­sis­tent with a path­way to 2° C of warm­ing and 120% more than would be con­sis­tent with a path­way to 1.5° C of warm­ing. While the pro­duc­tion gap is largest for coal, accord­ing to the report:

Oil and gas are also on track to exceed car­bon bud­gets, as coun­tries con­tin­ue to invest in fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture that locks in” oil and gas use. The effects of this lock-in widen the pro­duc­tion gap over time, until coun­tries are pro­duc­ing 43% (36 mil­lion bar­rels per day) more oil and 47% (1,800 bil­lion cubic meters) more gas by 2040 than would be con­sis­tent with a 2°C pathway.

The report goes on to explain the mani­ac log­ic coun­tries use to jus­ti­fy increas­ing production:

Many coun­tries appear to be bank­ing on export mar­kets to jus­ti­fy major increas­es in pro­duc­tion (e.g., the Unit­ed States, Rus­sia, and Cana­da) while oth­ers are seek­ing to lim­it or large­ly end imports through scaled-up pro­duc­tion (e.g., India and Chi­na). The net result could be sig­nif­i­cant over-invest­ment, increas­ing the risk of strand­ed assets, work­ers, and com­mu­ni­ties, as well as lock­ing in a high­er emis­sions trajectory.

In short, if gov­ern­ments real­ly did their jobs, they would crim­i­nal­ize pipelines, not protesters.

In response to the reports, Mitch Jones, cli­mate and ener­gy pro­gram direc­tor for Food and Water Action, says our most urgent task is to cut off the sup­ply of fos­sil fuels at their source.” He says, We have no time left to waste on neolib­er­al mar­ket tweaks.”

Jones, how­ev­er, holds out hope that the task may yet be accom­plished by pol­i­cy mak­ers and polit­i­cal lead­ers. Oth­ers, espe­cial­ly peo­ple in front­line and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties who wit­ness the destruc­tion of fos­sil fuel extrac­tion first hand, aren’t wait­ing on the gov­ern­ment to act. Faced with the abdi­ca­tion by their elect­ed lead­er­ship, as detailed in the U.N. reports, these com­mu­ni­ties are tak­ing the mat­ter into their own hands, and forg­ing a decen­tral­ized glob­al move­ment — that Nao­mi Klein dubs blocka­dia” — to resist, dis­rupt and defeat new fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture. The move­ment burst into inter­na­tion­al vis­i­bil­i­ty on the Dako­ta plains, but it did not stop there. As it were a milk­weed pod, the North Dako­ta author­i­ties who crushed the Stand­ing Rock camps in Feb­ru­ary 2017 suc­ceed­ed only in spread­ing the seeds far and wide.

Giv­en this con­text, the Wis­con­sin law and oth­ers like it should be seen for what they are: maneu­vers in the cli­mate war, made by mad men intent on strap­ping us all into their dooms­day machine and seal­ing the exits.

These laws are evi­dence, also, of how afraid they are that the block­ade-at-the-source tac­tics that have pro­lif­er­at­ed since Stand­ing Rock just might work.

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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