Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Playbook to Suppress Protest and Dissent

Since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016, an interconnected web of fossil fuel companies, government officials, and law enforcement have deployed a suite of tactics to steamroll opposition to fossil fuel expansion.

Andres Chang

That’s according to a report from Greenpeace USA titled Democracy versus Dollars 2023: Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Playbook to Suppress Protest and Dissent in the United States. 

“Sweeping fossil fuel anti-protest laws have been enacted in 18 states since 2016,” the report found. “These laws boost penalties for protest-related infractions such as trespassing near energy infrastructure. This makes it far riskier for activists to stand against pipelines and other projects that threaten their communities and the global climate.” 

“Another four states have enacted narrower versions of the same law, which could be exploited by prosecutors seeking to issue trumped-up charges against peaceful protesters. These state laws cover roughly 60 percent of US oil and gas production. Many were based on a model bill adopted by the industry-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).”

The report found that in addition to a successful lobbying effort to criminalize free speech, fossil fuel corporations, their lobbyists, and trade organizations have filed numerous lawsuits and legal actions against people and organizations for criticizing oil and gas production and expansion.

Out of 116 SLAPP and judicial harassment claims since 2010, 86 were filed by companies that have lobbied for anti-protest laws, including: ExxonMobil, Murray Energy Corporation, Energy Transfer, Chevron, and TransCanada. 

“We are seeing an escalation of tactics to criminalize, bully, and sue those working for climate action, Indigenous rights, and environmental justice,” said Ebony Twilley Martin, executive director of Greenpeace USA. “Our current climate emergency is a direct result of the oil and gas industry’s operations. Frontline activists should not face extreme, life-altering legal risks for putting their bodies on the line to keep our planet habitable. Oil and gas companies are finding new and dangerous ways to delay the transition to clean energy and protect their own profits.”

“We at Greenpeace USA are all too familiar with these tactics. We are facing a $300 million lawsuit from Energy Transfer, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer alleges that we organized the massive Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. They targeted Greenpeace as a proxy for the movement as a whole. Now, the industry is watching our lawsuit – and others – to see how effective this tactic will be in silencing protest.”

The report was written by Greenpeace senior research specialist Andres Chang. 

“This report was a follow up to a 2021 Greenpeace report also called Dollars v. Democracy,” Chang told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “For several years now, Greenpeace has been tracking the fossil fuel industry’s support for anti-protest bills. For decades, Greenpeace has been tracking the industry’s political interference. This report expands on this history of research. And it’s specifically focused on the industry’s role in undermining our right to free speech here in the United States.”

What exactly have they done?

“They draw from a wide range of tactics and work side by side with close allies in government to suppress protest and dissent. Their playbook of tactics involve criminalization. They seek passage of anti-protest laws that increase penalties for common protest activities. The industry seeks to paint activists as domestic terrorists or violent criminals.” 

“At the same time, the industry works closely with law enforcement and private security to monitor protesters with virtually no regard for First Amendment protected rights.”

“And finally, the industry has turned to abusive lawsuits that are intended to send a message to activists and organizations like Greenpeace that we shouldn’t be speaking up.”

“These lawsuits are called SLAPP lawsuits –  strategic lawsuits against public participation. They can be very expensive and involve years of litigation, often with very little substance behind them.”

“This power that the industry wields combines to undermine dissent and to steamroll overwhelming public support for climate action.”

Did the industry get laws passed in West Virginia, for example?

“West Virginia passed what we call a fossil fuel anti-protest law in 2020 during the Covid lockdown. It didn’t get that much public attention. But it’s based on a model law developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in early 2018.” 

“There has been a proliferation of laws based on this ALEC model bill since 2018. What almost all of these laws do is boost penalties to draconian levels for trespassing near energy infrastructure or critical infrastructure. And they boost penalties for actions that could impede or interfere with any of this infrastructure, including sometimes pipelines that are under construction.”

“That means that peaceful protesters who are blocking pipeline construction or who might be let’s say blocking the entrance to a construction site could be arrested and subjected to extreme jail time.”

“Ever since the first version of this law was passed in Oklahoma in 2017, the penalties have increased. One of these laws, for example, was passed in North Carolina earlier this year. And protesters who blocked pipeline construction could receive more than fifteen years in jail and a mandatory $250,000 fine. Those are extreme penalties that are harsh enough to deter protesters.”

Are these laws being enforced and are protesters being sentenced to prison for long periods of time?

“These laws address activity like trespassing that is already illegal under state laws. These laws increase the penalties. And that’s why they present a threat to free speech.”

What’s the reality when it comes to prosecution under these new laws?

“What we have observed anecdotally is some hesitation by prosecutors to actually charge protesters under these laws. One reason could be their understanding that these laws may be unconstitutional. But regardless of that, protesters are being arrested under these laws without being formally charged. And they can have these extreme charges hanging over them for a year or longer without being formally charged.” 

“The effect is intimidating and chilling. While these charges are hanging over your head, you are going to be prohibited or prevented from other kinds of activity that you want to engage in.”

The major point of your report is that these steps by the fossil fuel industry are intended not just to protect their property, but primarily to suppress free speech and protest. Is there any indication that their strategy is actually working – that free speech and protest has actually been suppressed?

“We explored whether we could test this empirically, but the number of changing factors makes it extremely difficult or impossible for trying to test empirically the impact of these laws.”

“We have to go on the basis of what we have heard from activists on the ground. What I’ve heard is that activists have had to spend more of their attention on training for knowing your protest rights.

“And people are worried about the impact of these laws. And it’s not only activists,  but also, for example, journalists who have been affected by SLAPP suits.”

“So anecdotally, yes these laws have had an impact. At the same time, the movement has continued to show up. We have seen protests continuing against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, despite the fact that anti-protests laws have been passed in West Virginia.”

  These new criminal laws are one focus of your report. The other is civil litigation. 

“After the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Energy Transfer Partners filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace and other defendants, basically claiming that Greenpeace orchestrated the resistance. The federal civil charges have been thrown out, but the remaining state based claims are going to trial in July.”

Your report is based on those two prongs – the SLAPP lawsuits and second the anti-protest laws. Is there anything else they are using to suppress activism?

“It goes beyond those two. These are two of the ways that the industry uses to exploit our legal and legislative system. But the industry’s coordination with law enforcement, and its use of private security, which has led to extremely hostile and sometimes violent action against activities is also profiled in this report.”

“This has to do with the way oil and gas companies hire private security firms to work with police to monitor First Amendment protected activism and the way that they are able to essentially pressure activists into stepping down – either using physical force or using legal pressure like court orders.”

“There are five case studies in this report. In many of them we observe these private security firms working, indirectly or directly with law enforcement in ways that open the door to abuses of law enforcement power.”

[For the complete q.a format Interview with Andres Change, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 42(12), October 30, 2023, print edition only.]

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