First Amendment Loses as Pipeline Industry Scores Another Win in Wisconsin

Joseph Bullington

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.

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Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.

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