Louisiana lawmakers eye harsher penalties in damaging pipeline

By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE, Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A fight over a crude oil pipeline in southern Louisiana has spilled into the Legislature.

A proposal to stiffen penalties for damaging or trespassing around pipelines is nearing final passage after winning approval Tuesday from a Senate judicial committee.

Rep. Major Thibaut’s bill would classify pipelines as critical infrastructure, lumping them in the same category as power plants and water treatment facilities.

If the Democrat’s proposal becomes law, anyone who damages a pipeline could face up to 15 years in prison and someone who unlawfully enters pipeline land could get up to five years. The intention, he said, is to protect pipelines.

“This bill does nothing to impact the ability to peacefully protest. It only comes into play when there is damage to that critical infrastructure, so if you don’t damage anything this law does not apply,” Thibaut said.

His assertion was challenged by environmental activists, a crawfisherman and a professor. They argued that the bill will stifle free speech against protests, could wrongfully net anyone who accidentally enters pipeline land in a state interlaced with pipelines and noted that the bill included penalties for “unauthorized entry” to critical infrastructure.

“We do still think there’s some question about the intentional nature of this singling out pipeline protests,” said William P. Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

The bill comes as construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana’s Cajun country has been marked by protests, a handful of arrests and legal fights.