Several years ago, my husband and I drove to Washington, PA to take part in a public meeting about fracking. The meeting was to start at 6 p.m. and we arrived at 5 p.m. We were surprised at the long line of people waiting to sign in to provide testimony. Within a few minutes of our arrival, it was announced that no one standing in line would be allowed to testify as they had reached the limit for the meeting.
Most of the people standing in line were outraged and expressed this to those who were in charge. We asked how could the meeting be at capacity when there was still an hour before the starting time? We found out that the oil and gas industry had bused in their employees at noon and had also provided employees with typed testimony to read.
My husband and I, along with many others refused to leave. Eventually, we were allowed to provide our testimony—at 11:30 p.m. Had we not put up a fight, I doubt we would have been able to testify. It was obvious that the oil and gas industry had used this tactic to prohibit citizens from giving their testimony.
Citizens often dissent by using peaceful protests to try to call attention to injustices when they feel their property or their rights have been violated in some way. Sadly, a recently adopted piece of Ohio legislation, SB 33, will now make it harder for frontline communities to dissent against oil and gas infrastructure.
This bill dramatically increases the “penalties for non-violent protest at fracking sites, oil and gas pipelines, petrochemical plants and other critical infrastructure” sites. It also makes non-profits and organizations and congregations liable for punishment if they show any support to protestors charged. This is “a direct threat to basic rights of freedom of speech and assembly.”
There is already legislation in Ohio to address trespass, but this bill will increase the penalties from up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine to up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine. Additionally, the bill’s definition of “critical infrastructure” is broad and includes oil, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, and other locations. One could argue that nailing a garage sale notice to a telephone pole is harming “critical infrastructure” and would result in a $1000 fine. There is also no clear definition of “improper tampering” in the bill. This is an offense that could result in a decade in prison and unquestionably needs to be defined in the bill.
So, where and how did such a bill, one that robs citizens of freedom of speech come about? More than 40 states have introduced similar bills in the past four years. Ohio would be the 14th state to pass the measure into law, joining states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia. West Virginia’s bill, HB 4615, passed a year ago.
The bill was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. It is no coincidence that over one-third of Ohio’s legislators are members of ALEC. One of these members includes Frank Hoagland, a Republican who sponsored the bill. He represents an area that is being heavily fracked, Ohio District 30. This district contains the counties of Harrison, Jefferson, Belmont, Monroe and Carroll which are all located in the proposed area of the petrochemical buildout and plastics making cracker plant. According to the Huffington Post, he also owns “two consultancies that provide private security services to oil and gas companies.” Isn’t this a conflict of interest?
The influence of ALEC in Ohio is omnipotent. According to Polluter Watch, eleven of the 13 state Senate committees are chaired by ALEC members. Three of the top four state Senate GOP leaders are ALEC members, Larry Obhof, Bob Peterson, and Matt Huffman. “Altogether, 41 of the state’s 85 GOP legislative members are also ALEC members. The GOP has also received thousands of dollars in donations from companies who are members of ALEC. These include: Marathon Petroleum, Duke Energy, and Exelon.
Governor DeWine had the chance to veto this bill, but the Governor who claims to be pro-kids has ignored the kids who live in these frontline communities and are exposed to toxic air and water emissions. This bill does exactly what it is intended to do: it takes one more tool away from frontline community members who are fighting for their lives against huge corporations with endless money and political influence.
Many counties in western Pennsylvania, SE Ohio, or West Virginia are facing continued health threats and loss of property from oil and gas development. Two families in western Pennsylvania lost acres of sugar maple trees when their property was seized via eminent domain to construct the Constitution Pipeline. They still have not received any financial restitution for this loss and have started a gofundme account to help pay for legal costs. Protests like those against the Nexxus pipeline in Ohio could result in serious legal costs due to SB 33.
These frontline communities experience the worst impacts from extractive industries that use their resources and leave them with a toxic legacy. They often find the same state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting human health and the environment have become puppets that dance for the multinational corporations.
In addition, regulations that were meant to protect air and water have been rewritten by the industries and their lobbyists. The previous federal administration either weakened or threw out over 100 different environmental regulations. Ohio’s HB 6 proves the tenacles of the energy industry have reached into our lives to stall renewable energy and protect dirty fuels.
Ironically, the same organization that wants to silence dissent against the dangers of oil and gas development was at the Capitol Building during the violent insurrection on January 6. A recent report by Polluter Watch, said many ALEC politicians took part in a massive disinformation campaign around alleged voter fraud which helped fuel the uprising.”
The report also said, “At least four current or recent members of ALEC who are also state legislators traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the rally that ended with a march to the Capitol and a deadly insurrection.”
Until we can reverse Citizens United and end the influence of lobby groups, I fear our country will remain an oligarchy controlled by the fossil fuel industry. Our democracy will not perish from a lack of guns to defend it but from a lack of dissent directed at the corporations who control our lives.