Activists Say New Laws To Protect Critical Infrastructure Aim To Silence Them Climate activists protesting oil and gas are the first charged under a new critical infrastructure law in Texas. Supporters say the laws protect ports, pipelines and other sensitive places.

Activists Say New Laws To Protect Critical Infrastructure Aim To Silence Them

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Now to Texas, where 31 climate activists are the first to be charged under a new state law that makes some civil disobedience a felony. Texas and eight other states have enacted these laws aimed at protecting pipelines, ports, refineries and other so-called critical infrastructure from interference. Critics call them fossil fuel protection laws and say their real aim is to stifle protest and dissent in the era of climate change. Mose Buchele with member station KUT has our story.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: In Texas, it started earlier this month when Greenpeace climate activists formed a blockade on the Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel. Eleven of them then rappelled off of it, unfurling streamers and hanging in midair in a scene that looked kind of like high-rise window washers meets Cirque de Soleil.

RICO SISNEY: The reason we're here is because the era of fossil fuels needs to end.

BUCHELE: That's protester Rico Sisney. On Facebook Live, he posted himself suspended high over the Houston Ship Channel against a skyline filled with oil and gas refineries as helicopters circled overhead. This channel, which stretches from the city to the sea, is home to refineries from global oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell. More oil is exported through it than anywhere else in the country. The group had intended to stay for 24 hours to block that flow, but before the day was over, sheriff's deputies rappelled down, tied themselves to the activists and forcibly lowered them to waiting police boats, where they were arrested.

SISNEY: So there were 23 people here. One, two, three. There's six of us left.

BUCHELE: By the end, the protesters had stopped some oil traffic for about 18 hours, but the full fallout of their actions could be much greater. They now face federal charges, but they've also become the first people charged under a new Texas law that carries even steeper prison time - up to two years. It's a law that increases penalties for certain crimes, making trespassing on and disrupting so-called critical infrastructure a felony. Supporters say the law is necessary to allow energy projects to move forward and protect sensitive places like ports, freight yards, refineries and pipelines.

ALLEN FORE: A lot of that is about safety.

BUCHELE: Allen Fore is a VP at the pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has big projects in Texas.

FORE: You know, people laying themselves down in front of bulldozers and strapping themselves to things - that's dangerous. It's dangerous to everyone involved.

BUCHELE: But critics see the law as part of an effort to silence climate activists. These protesters were on a state bridge, a structure not even explicitly covered under the law. Daphne Silverman is an Austin-based defense lawyer who has advised Greenpeace.

DAPHNE SILVERMAN: I do have some nonprofit clients, and I know that they are concerned about their own liability for any protest support at this stage.

BUCHELE: In all, nine states have enacted critical infrastructure laws since 2016. That's when protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline stalled construction in some places. The Texas law is among the toughest. It doesn't just single out individuals. It also leaves organizations that support them open to fines up to a half million dollars. Silverman says the Texas rule is ripe for a constitutional challenge.

SILVERMAN: I think that there is a great risk that it infringes upon our first amendment rights because of the broadness of it. It's going to capture conduct that should be protected.

BUCHELE: In South Dakota, a U.S. district judge recently blocked that state's law that made it harder to protest pipeline projects, saying it violated free speech. Here, Greenpeace agrees that the Texas law is unconstitutional but says it may be premature to view this as a test case. The organization itself has not been charged yet, just the individual protesters. Rico Sisney, the activists you heard suspended from that bridge at the start of the story, says they remain undeterred, and he would do it all again.

SISNEY: We've reached a point where folks recognize that we have to keep moving.

BUCHELE: He and the other protesters are scheduled to appear in Texas state court in early December.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

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