As scientists warn of imminent climate change, environmental welfare activists in the United States are facing growing legal penalties and a crackdown by law enforcement agencies designed to counteract environmental activism.83 Dubbed the “New Green Scare,” this resurgence of the state siding with corporations that engage in environmental exploitation is leading to mounting legal concerns for activists. [Note: For prior Project Censored coverage of this topic, see Melissa Reed and Susan Rahman, “FBI Surveilled Peaceful Climate Change Protestors,” in Censored 2020: Through the Looking Glass, eds. Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2019), 55–58, https://www.projectcensored.org/14-fbi-surveilled-peaceful-climate-change-protesters/; and Sverre Tysl and Scott Suneson, “Terror Act Against Animal Activists,” in Censored 2008: The Top 25 Censored Stories of 2006–07, eds. Peter Phillips and Andy Lee Roth with Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 109–114, https://www.projectcensored.org/20-terror-act-against-animal-activists/.]
As Elizabeth King explained in an October 2019 Progressive magazine article, while the Trump administration’s corporate-friendly policies dramatically endanger the health of our environment, those who take direct action in its defense are increasingly being framed as domestic terrorists. The FBI and pro-fossil fuel politicians like Oklahoma senator James Inhofe have identified environmental activism as a significant domestic terrorism threat.
Environmental protesters often risk incarceration and drawn-out legal battles for charges such as trespassing, sabotage, burglary, and terrorism. For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, in which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sought to protect their water from the construction of the pipeline, resulted in a total of 836 criminal cases. A number of US states, including Texas and North Dakota, have enacted new laws to target environmental activists, and seven states have even instituted laws that specifically target pipeline protesters. The expansion of “critical infrastructure” laws to include pipelines puts activists who protest against such environmentally dangerous projects at risk of enhanced legal penalties.
Meanwhile, in West Virginia, activist Holden Dometrius was charged in April 2019 with a felony threat of terroristic acts for chaining himself to construction equipment being used to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that “poses a major threat to the local ecology, including many endangered species,” King reported. Since then, other nonviolent Mountain Valley Pipeline protestors—who would have previously been charged with misdemeanors—are now being charged with felonies.
State-level laws to restrict eco-activism are frequently based on model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and have often been introduced by politicians with direct ties to ALEC, King wrote. Funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch and dozens of other large corporations, ALEC is the driving force behind much of the “critical infrastructure” legislation being passed by state legislatures throughout the country.
In late March 2020, amid the coronavirus outbreak, three Republican-controlled state legislatures—in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Kentucky—passed laws criminalizing fossil fuel protests.
While corporate media outlets are paying increased attention to topics such as climate change and the Green New Deal endorsed by some Democratic candidates in their 2020 primary election campaigns, they have generally disregarded the fact that the government is criminalizing eco-activist protest and direct action. The passage of state legislation in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Kentucky assigning criminal penalties for protests directed at pipelines and other fossil fuel facilities was largely covered by outlets outside the corporate media establishment, including HuffPost, The Hill, and the Weather Channel.
Elizabeth King, “The New Green Scare,” The Progressive, October 6, 2019, https://progressive.org/magazine/the-new-green-scare-king-191001/.
Student Researcher: Rebecca Noelke (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)