In Utah, protests that hinder the functioning of fossil fuel infrastructure could now lead to at least five years in prison. The new rules make Utah the 19th state in the country to pass legislation with stiffer penalties for protesting at so-called critical infrastructure sites, which include oil and gas facilities, power plants, and railroads. The new laws proliferated in the aftermath of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017.
Utah’s Legislature passed two separate bills containing stricter penalties for tampering with or damaging critical infrastructure earlier this month. House Bill 370 makes intentionally “inhibiting or impeding the operation of a critical infrastructure facility” a first-degree felony, which is punishable by five years to life in prison. A separate bill allows law enforcement to charge a person who “interferes with or interrupts critical infrastructure” with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Both bills were signed into law by the governor this month.
Of the two bills, First Amendment and criminal justice advocates are particularly concerned about HB 370 due to its breadth, the severity of penalties, and its potential to curb environmental protests. The bill contains a long list of facilities that are considered critical infrastructure including grain mills, trucking terminals, and transmission facilities used by federally licensed radio or television stations. It applies both to facilities that are operational and those under construction.
Since the bill doesn’t define activities that may be considered “inhibiting or impeding” operations at a facility, environmental protesters may inadvertently find themselves in the crosshairs of the legislation, according to environmental and civil liberties advocates. Protesters engaging in direct action often chain themselves to equipment, block roadways, or otherwise disrupt operations at fossil fuel construction sites. Under the new legislation, such activities could result in a first-degree felony charge.
“This bill could be used to prohibit pipeline protests like we saw with the Dakota [Access] Pipeline project,” said Mark Moffat, an attorney with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, referring to the 2017 protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. “It elevates what would be basically a form of vandalism or criminal mischief under the laws of the state of Utah to a first-degree felony.”
A first-degree felony is typically reserved for violent crimes like murder and sexual assault. Moffat said that the state’s sentencing guidelines are indeterminate, which means the amount of time someone spends in prison is at the discretion of the Board of Pardons.