North Dakota bill inspired by pipeline 'valve turner' receives mixed testimony
BISMARCK — North Dakota’s energy leaders voiced support Friday, Jan. 18, for a bill that seeks to deter tampering with critical infrastructure, but opponents said the language is too vague and could infringe on free speech.
Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, introduced Senate Bill 2044 after environmental activists turned an oil pipeline valve in her northeast North Dakota district in 2016.
Myrdal told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee her proposal seeks to strengthen the law to prevent damage to energy operations, telecommunications infrastructure and other critical facilities.
“Interruptions of such infrastructure, in especially our state but across the nation, could actually be deadly for our citizens,” Myrdal said.
Scott Skokos, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, was among those who testified against the bill, raising concerns about language that makes it a crime to impede or inhibit the construction or operation of a critical infrastructure facility. Skokos said some may interpret that to include protests or other efforts to sway public opinion.
“I think the language in this bill is sufficiently vague and can be left open to interpretation,” Skokos said.
The grassroots organization emphasized that it does not condone damaging or tampering with infrastructure, but believes current laws are sufficient.
“We do not support dangerous things like valve turning,” Skokos said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota also opposes the bill, arguing it is unconstitutional.
One component of the bill is to make a fine 10 times greater if an organization is found to be a conspirator with an individual who tampers with or damages infrastructure.
“Making an organization criminally liable for all damage would impermissibly burden the rights of political association that are protected by the First Amendment — the literal embodiment of guilt by association,” testified Patrick Ward, a lobbyist representing the ACLU of North Dakota Foundation.
Myrdal said that portion of the bill seeks to deter organizations from hiring people to damage infrastructure.
“Lawful activities, including freedom of speech, are not affected by this bill,” she said.
The event that inspired the bill was a coordinated effort to stop the flow of oil from Canada into the United States in four states in protest of the oil industry's contribution to climate change. The man who turned the valve in North Dakota served six months in jail. No other activists received jail time.
Myrdal said she heard from law enforcement that “there was not enough teeth and not enough deterrent in our current law.”
Supporters of the bill included Shawn Kessel, representing EmPower North Dakota, which includes members from all segments of the state’s energy industry.
“We’re an energy exporter, so not only are we affecting potentially North Dakotans, but also surrounding states’ residents,” Kessel said.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak testified in support of the bill, telling legislators she thinks it “strikes a good balance” between providing a strong deterrent and protecting people’s free speech rights.
Other supporters of the bill included representatives from the telecommunications industry and the North Dakota Peace Officers Association.
“This is somethings that’s broader than just protecting property, it’s protecting public lives,” testified Blair Thoreson, lobbyist for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association.
Mary Wilson, a Bismarck resident who testified against the bill, challenged committee members to pass legislation to protect natural resources. Wilson said the political actions that the bill seeks to discourage “are spurred by people not feeling like there’s enough protection in place currently.”
The committee did not take action on the bill Friday. Chairwoman Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, said committee members have several amendments to review and will likely discuss the bill next week.