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Ohio Quietly Passes A Bill That Could Bankrupt Churches Linked To Fossil Fuel Protests

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Ohio lawmakers faced fierce blowback last winter over a bill that would escalate criminal charges on fossil fuel protesters and threaten religious organizations or nonprofits that support such demonstrations with crushing fines. 

By then, the state Senate had already passed the proposal, known as SB-33. At House hearings that lasted until early 2020, however, some 171 opponents testified against the effort they said risked chilling free speech and preventing the faithful from exercising their spiritual duties at a moment when scientists credibly argue that new fossil fuel projects doom humanity to hellish global warming. Just nine spoke in favor of the bill.

For nearly a year, the bill sat dormant. But this week, on the state Legislature’s final day, House lawmakers quietly passed it. The measure is expected to reach Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk on Monday. 

“They’re just cowards, plain and simple cowards,” Teresa Mills, executive director of the nonprofit Buckeye Environmental Network, said by phone Friday night. “Shame on them.” 

State Sen. Frank Hoagland, the Republican who sponsored the bill, did not return a call or email requesting comment on Friday. 

The proposal is part of a wave of anti-protest bills that began surfacing in state legislatures in 2017 but picked up steam as the COVID-19 pandemic reached its initial peak. The bills follow a model. They designate virtually any oil, gas, coal or plastics facilities as “critical infrastructure,” a status normally afforded to dams and nuclear reactors. Then they ramp up criminal penalties for commonplace protest tactics, such as blocking a roadway, tethering oneself to equipment, or even just holding a demonstration near a company’s property.

Offenses that were once minor misdemeanors are reclassified as more severe crimes, in some cases felonies. Fines for the offenses can soar into the tens of thousands of dollars and convictions can sometimes carry jail sentences. 

Ohio state Sen. Frank Hoagland, the Republican who authored legislation that aims to crack down on fossil fuel-related protests, owns two consultancies that provide private security services to oil and gas companies.

Under Ohio’s legislation, anyone convicted of stepping foot on critical infrastructure property and “causing another person to believe that the offender will cause physical harm” would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, a class of crime that includes domestic violence and drunk driving and is punishable with up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. Those who trespass “with purpose to destroy or tamper with the facility” face third-degree felony charges, which in Ohio can result in up to five years in jail and $10,000 in fines. (The bill itself does not set minimum penalties.)

Any organizations that “knowingly direct, authorize, facilitate, or encourage a person to commit any of the following offenses or provide compensation to a person for committing any of the following offenses” can be “punished with a fine that is ten times the maximum fine that can be imposed on an individual.” Companies that operate critical infrastructure could then sue those same organizations in civil court, too. 

Such penalties could bankrupt congregations like those in the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, a network of churches that opposed the bill. 

“The fact that this could have an impact on some tiny little church in the middle of Appalachia that’s trying to protect its people from pollution really pisses me off, which I realize is not very theological language,” said Rev. Joan VanBecelaere, the church network’s executive director. “But this is not just protest, it’s a public witness of who we are as faithful people.” 

Some 40 states have introduced parallel legislation over the past four years. If DeWine signs the bill, Ohio would be the 14th state to pass the measures into law. Roughly half a dozen have been enacted since March in states that include Mississippi, South Dakota and West Virginia. 

The bills’ similarities are no coincidence. In 2017, the American Legislative Exchange Council — the right-wing policy shop funded by big business and billionaires — began promoting a generic version of the bill in response to the protests to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a water source Native Americans held sacred.

Militarized police and private security forces brutalized environmentalists and Indigenous activists who camped out at the site of the proposed oil pipeline, injuring at least 300 unarmed protesters in one day, including one woman who nearly lost her arm. The heavily armed security forces reported no such injuries. 

The bill’s proponents, though, cited the risk of violence by protesters as a need for the legislation. In a December 2017 letter urging state legislators to champion the proposal, five energy trade groups and a big oil company listed six examples of threats environmentalists posed to so-called critical infrastructure. 

Only one example actually involved environmentalists. During the Dakota Access fight, activists clipped the locks on fenced-in portions of a connected oil pipeline in the Midwest and turned the valves closed, briefly stopping the flow of oil to refineries. The demonstrators were arrested and charged under existing laws. The other five examples had nothing to do with environmental concerns, and were instead loosely bound by mental illness or workplace grievance. 

It’s pretty cynical for these dirty-energy companies to let the bill idle for almost a year before handing out felonies for Christmas. Connor Gibson, a researcher who tracks critical infrastructure legislation

Many of the same corporate actors that pressed for similar bills in other states lobbied on SB-33, disclosures show, though the records do not indicate the position companies and trade groups took. 

Between January 2019 and August 2020, companies including Duke Energy, Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil Corp. and TransCanada, as well as trade groups including the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and American Chemistry Council registered to lobby on SB-33, according to disclosures analyzed by Connor Gibson, a freelance researcher who tracks critical infrastructure legislation. 

Between 2018 and 2019, lobbyists whose clients included fossil fuel giant Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity, the political group funded and controlled by Koch executives, met with Hoagland, according to emails the watchdog group Documented obtained via Ohio public records requests. 

Hoagland himself appears to have a stake in the bill. He owns two consultancies ― 360 Safe Solutions and Special Tactics And Rescue Training ― that provide private security services to fossil fuel companies and advertise a “particular expertise in threats to the oil and gas industry.” The potential benefit prompted calls for Hoagland to take “a basic, conflict-of-interest-avoidance pledge” to “never accept contracts to work a security detail at protests involving ‘critical infrastructure.’”

It’s unclear whether Hoagland even considered such a pledge, particularly in the 11 months that passed without any movement on the bill.  

“It’s pretty cynical for these dirty-energy companies to let the bill idle for almost a year before handing out felonies for Christmas,” Gibson said. 

Mills said she and others opposing the bill only learned that legislators had taken it up again because a lawmaker who opposed the legislation called her hours before. 

“We didn’t even have 12 hours notice that they were going to vote on this bill,” she said. “And we can’t go to the statehouse because those jerks don’t wear masks. They’ve got two reps in the hospital now with the virus, so we can’t go and we can’t have our voices heard at the statehouse.” 

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