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National View Column: Pipeline protests are going too far

Logging equipment damaged in St. Louis County among the destructive, dangerous 'protest-by-vandalism' that must be stopped.

Craig Stevens.jpg
Craig Stevens
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If you break the speed limit, you get a ticket. While you might not be happy you’re receiving a ticket, no rational person would dispute the logic behind the ticket.

On the other hand, pipeline protesters sometimes break the law — vandalizing infrastructure and putting workers, law enforcement, and community members at risk — and act surprised when they are held accountable for their actions.

To be clear: freedom of speech and the right to protest are critical rights protected under the U.S. Constitution.

But a dangerous trend is rapidly developing in which activists decide they can pick and choose which laws they would like to follow — with little apparent regard to property rights, safety, or the well-being of others.

In September, federal prosecutors charged Dakota Access Pipeline vandals Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya each with one count of conspiracy to damage an energy facility, four counts of use of fire in the commission of a felony, and four counts of malicious use of fire, as the Des Moines Register reported.

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The charges came nearly three years after the duo’s “direct action campaign” to stymy the now-operational pipeline caused more than $2.5 million in damages. The tactics they were accused of using included burning pieces of heavy construction equipment, blowtorching exposed pipeline valves, and burning valve sites and electrical units with tires and gasoline-soaked rags.

In a 2017 press conference, Montoya admitted they damaged the $3.8 billion pipeline, but alleged the two acted “out of necessity” because “(their) conclusion (was) that the system is broken, and it is up to us as individuals to take peaceful action and remedy it,” as the Register quoted her.

Ironically, despite claims that the Dakota Access pipeline poses a threat to the environment and surrounding communities, bigger threats are in the dangerous and unlawful vigilante tactics of protesters like Montoya and Reznicek.

The pipeline has now been operational for more than two years, safely and efficiently transporting the energy that American consumers use and need every day.

Unfortunately, the actions of Montoya and Reznicek are not isolated. Protesters continue to employ risky, illegal tactics that put others in danger and come at taxpayer expense.

In St. Louis County, activists vandalized logging equipment by pouring sand and water into engine compartments and cutting hydraulic hoses and wiring after mistakenly identifying the worksite as Line 3 oil pipeline construction, according to Duluth media reports. Damages totaled more than $100,000 and more than a week of cleanup.

But the antics don’t stop there. There have been dozens of recorded incidents of pipeline vandalism and unlawful protest over the last decade across the United States and Canada. A number of states, from Louisiana to Pennsylvania and Texas to Ohio, have introduced or passed legislation to counter these dangerous protests, to keep workers and bystanders safe, and to protect critical infrastructure. Targeted infrastructure has included but has not been limited to agriculture systems, dams, ports and other water structures; manufacturing and refining facilities; electric transmission lines; and substations and fuel pipelines.

While legislation has been met with criticism from pipeline opponents, the increasing popularity of protest-by-vandalism must stop. Taking blowtorches to pipe, pouring sand into equipment engines, and lighting fire to worksites are not acceptable or effective methods of dissent.

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Environmental activists ought to carefully consider the big picture. It is worth noting, as Forbes contributor Brigham A. McCown wrote in January, that protesters undermine their own argument by opposing American energy infrastructure development. Opposing the construction of modern pipelines will not minimize our nation’s need for oil and gas. Rather, it will only increase the use of truck and rail for transport, both of which are less environmentally friendly, less safe, and less efficient.

While the 2020 White House contenders focus on flashy “green” energy proposals, and regardless of opinions on pipeline development, it is important to remember that natural gas and petroleum products are responsible for producing the mainstay of American energy and sustaining our way of life.

Craig Stevens is a former senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman and is spokesman for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now (gainnow.org). He is based in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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