Proposed Minnesota law aims to crack down on protesters, but protesters are protesting

ST. PAUL-As the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission prepares to vote this June on Enbridge Energy Co.'s controversial Line 3 replacement project, Northland lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would crack down on those who train or recrui...
Enbridge Line 3 contractors were back to work after a protest at a site near Superior, Wis., in 2017. Brady Slater / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL-As the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission prepares to vote this June on Enbridge Energy Co.'s controversial Line 3 replacement project, Northland lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would crack down on those who train or recruit protesters who damage "critical infrastructure" such as oil pipelines.

However, those against the law fear that it would intimidate would-be activists and squash peaceful protests.

The proposed legislation, which would amend an existing law barring people from damaging "critical public service facilities, utilities, and pipelines," was introduced to the state House on March 12 and the Senate on March 15. The law would make anyone who "recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires with or otherwise procures another to trespass" liable for any damage.

The Senate version of the bill was authored by Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, who represents Minnesota's District 2; District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, was added as an author on April 9.

Utke said he anticipates possible protests related to the Line 3 replacement project, and thinks the bill would help keep law enforcement safe.

"As we sit here in our district, we know that there's a big pipeline project on the table that's being proposed with this Line 3 replacement," Utke said. "We know that there's opposition that we see when these projects take place, and this bill hopefully will give law enforcement and our legal system more teeth to deal with those that are violating the law."

Enbridge hopes to replace its aging Line 3 with a new line that would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wis. The 1,033-mile pipeline would travel through parts of northern Minnesota, including land opponents say would be put at risk by the pipeline. In March, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved an environmental review of the proposed line. A state administrative law judge is set to make a decision soon on the need for the line, as well as which route is best. The PUC will make a final decision in June on the need and route.

The Bemidji area, as well as Duluth, Superior and the pipeline terminal at Clearbrook, have already seen multiple protests related to pipelines which, Utke said, serves as an impetus for the bill.

Clearbrook arrests

In October 2016, environmental activists Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein were arrested and charged with felonies after tampering with pipeline valves owned by Canadian energy company Enbridge at Clearbrook. Two other activists were also arrested and charged, though Johnston and Klapstein say they were the ones who used bolt cutters to cut padlocks and chains at the facility.

A Line 3 protest in Superior in August ended with six people charged with various offenses.

A small protest in September at Enbridge's Bemidji office ended with no arrests.

"We've seen people do things that are inappropriate or bad around critical infrastructure, and you know, that's where this bill all starts, it's critical infrastructure," Utke said. "In our area it gets tied to pipeline activity and such just because we happen to be kind of in that circle where we've got a lot of pipeline."

DAPL protests

Large-scale protests also broke out in early 2016 and continued for months in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline, commonly referred to as DAPL, in North Dakota. The controversial line now runs just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's reservations, and opponents are concerned that a potential leak would contaminate drinking water.

During eight months of protests, law enforcement there made 761 arrests, according to a letter sent by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Though the proposed legislation mentions other types of "critical infrastructure," environmental activist Simone Senogles-who works for the Indigenous Environmental Network, which is based in Bemidji-believes it is, at its core, about pipelines. The group helped organize the anti-DAPL protests.

"The language in the bill assumes that pipelines are for the public good, and that to oppose them is somehow harming the public good when, in fact, our position is that the opposite is true," she said.

"I think this bill is reactionary to the demonstrated powers that protest has had over the last couple years with Black Lives Matter and the NoDAPL, and I think that industry and government are banding together to start to silence the voices of opposition."

Senogles is also concerned that, if passed, the legislation would discourage peaceful protest and hamper people's First Amendment rights.

"It's a dangerous piece of legislation," Senogles said. "Protest has righted many wrongs in our country since its beginning...things like the eight-hour workday, minimum wage, child labor laws, those have all been things that have come about by protest, by citizen engagement, and anything that curtails that kind of free speech, that voice, is a threat to our democracy."

Utke believes the legislation would not curtail First Amendment rights or discourage protest. But, he said, it could help to keep protests under control.

"We're just seeing it more and more around the country, and these things are getting more serious," Utke said. "People still have the right for a peaceful protest and to do their things, but these people are trespassing, they're doing damage, they're doing all these other things that we have to get our hands wrapped around and do something about, and then have the penalties for everybody upline, too."

St. Paul plans

Environmentalist organization MN350-which has a newly formed Bemidji chapter-plans to protest the bill. Utke isn't sure when the legislation will be taken to the House and Senate floors, but Nancy Beaulieu, the Bemidji chapter's organizer, said she and about 10 others are ready to travel to St. Paul when it does.

"That is our freedom of speech and our right to protest," Beaulieu said. "When they threaten us with jail time and other charges that is actually hindering our freedom of speech."