The Trump administration is looking to enact a change in federal policy that could land anti-pipeline activists in prison for decades. The new proposal was announced Monday (June 3) and echoes recent state legislation that harshly penalizes this same group.

The United States Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed that Congress update laws to make protesting a pipeline—as well as interrupting its construction—a federal crime. Politico reports that per the proposed update, “vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting or inhibiting the operation of” pipelines would result in fines or jail time.

From ThinkProgress:

Under current law, damaging existing pipelines can lead to up to 20 years jail time, but those “under construction” are now a consideration as well along with “disruption” to pipelines.

Other components of the PHMSA updates include changing the threshold for damages incurred by a pipeline accident before an operator is required to report a problem; the proposal would double the $100,000 threshold currently in place.

The updated regulation mirrors new state laws. As Colorlines previously reported, in March, South Dakota passed two laws that criminalize protest against the TransCanada KeystoneXL oil pipeline. The laws allow the state to not only prosecute pipeline demonstrators and their funders, but to use the fines paid for damages to fund law enforcement and pipeline costs. Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have also criminalized pipeline protests.

Environmental activists argue that these laws are a violation of First Amendment rights. In May, ThinkProgress reported that “environmental groups and demonstrators sued to challenge Louisiana’s law, after being arrested in 2018 near the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline, then under construction.” 

Some regard the proposed update to the federal rule as more punitive than the state laws. Elly Page, attorney for International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, told Politico, “The proposed penalty is far and away more extreme than what we’ve seen at the state level. When you combine provisions that vague to penalties that extreme, that creates uncertainty about what is and isn’t legal.”

Pipeline developers and the fossil fuel industry support the update, but environmental activists will likely seek legal action against the Trump administration, according to ThinkProgress, which adds:

Activists have relied on pipeline protests as a successful protest tactic used to protect vulnerable communities, including Indigenous tribes and low-income people of color who often suffer the consequences of fossil fuel impacts. Many also see protest as critical to addressing climate change, an approach that has met with legal success.

During the Obama administration, anti-pipeline activists gained notable victories, including halting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline—a win that was overturned days after President Donald Trump took office and signed an executive order to restart the project.

Senator Ed Markey (D–Mass.), a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, released a statement on the proposed update, saying, “This provision is a clear infringement on the basic right of speech and assembly and a poorly veiled effort to undermine the ability of Native and Indigenous communities to advocate for themselves and their tribal lands.”