Credit: pxfuel

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony this week on a bill that would create stiff penalties for defacing, damaging or tampering with oil and gas, mining, railway or telecommunications infrastructure.

House Bill 481 sponsor Rep. Steve Gunderson, R- Libby, said his bill protects the public’s right to peacefully protest while imposing penalties for property damage.

“Once the realm of peaceful is left and there’s burning, damage and rioting, HB 481 would kick in. It sets forth enhanced fines and jail time for those who choose to become rioters rather than peaceful protesters,” Gunderson said during his introduction of the bill Wednesday.

Under HB 481, someone who trespasses on property containing critical infrastructure could be subject to a $1,500 fine and six months in jail. Damaging, defacing or tampering with equipment on a critical infrastructure facility would carry penalties of up to 30 years in prison and a $150,000 fine. It would also subject “an organization found to be a conspirator” to fines up to 10 times the amount levied on the person who committed the crime. 

Proponents of the measure included industry groups like the Montana Petroleum Association and Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Coal Counties and utility companies like NorthWestern Energy and Charter Spectrum. They said HB 481 protects the considerable investments of utility providers and private companies.

Montana Petroleum Association Executive Director Alan Olsen in testimony mentioned an individual’s attempt to shut down a pipeline in Montana four years ago by turning off a valve. He said that such acts can cause millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue, and put people at risk of injury or death. He said such acts should be punished appropriately. 

Opponents of the measure said it would have a chilling effect on free speech and that the penalties proposed by HB 481 are disproportionate to the acts described. Opponents included Western Native Voice, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes and the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Several opponents noted that trespassing and vandalizing property are already illegal under Montana law, and maintained that the penalties proposed by HB 481 are too heavy-handed. Northern Plains Resource Council member Joan Kresich said that under Gunderson’s proposal, a kid spray-painting equipment could be charged with defacing critical infrastructure, a crime that would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

“It’s so important that we make sure that the penalties in our legal system really, truly fit,” she said. “We don’t need this.”

The sponsor indicated that he’s considering a number of amendments that have been proposed during testimony. Adam Haight with the Montana AFL-CIO said that if an amendment were included to protect worker rights pertaining to strikes and lockouts, his organization would withdraw its opposition to the bill. 

Rancher Dick Iverson said he fears that under the proposal as it’s currently written, a farmer who unintentionally damages a pipeline with farm equipment could be in violation of the law. He said he and Gunderson have discussed an amendment to address that concern.

In his closing remarks, Gunderson noted that laws similar to his proposal are already on the books in states North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma. 

There’s significant overlap between Gunderson’s proposal and a “protect critical infrastructure” model bill that’s promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative nonprofit with backing from oil and gas companies including Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

The House Judiciary Committee did not take executive action on the measure Wednesday. 

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