A bill passed four years ago made it a felony in Wisconsin to trespass on land owned by energy providers, like oil and gas companies.
But a bill passed this month by the state legislature would also criminalize trespassing on land that contains a pipeline.
The bill is awaiting Governor Evers’ signature. If the Governor signs it into law, tribal members and others on pipeline land in Wisconsin could face a Class H felony, which carries a fine of up to $10,000 or a prison term of up to six years.
On Monday, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Northwestern Wisconsin asked Governor Evers to veto the bill, saying it would negatively impact their community.
Philomena Kabec, a member of the Bad River Chippewa and a former prosecutor, says the bill could violate the rights of tribal members.
“Application of this particular criminal statute within the reservation boundaries and the potential that it could require people who are tribal members who are accessing pipeline corridors may have to prove that they are lawfully authorized and that they have consent of the company to be within tribal lands,” says Kabec.
Kabec also says this bill could force people to prove that they are innocent, which she sees as a violation of the assumption of innocence.
“This is unacceptable and it constitutes an intrusion into people’s rights,” Kabec says.
Bills like this have been proposed in other states, including North Dakota and Ohio, following the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 when a group of Native American protesters camped in the path of a proposed oil pipeline.
Proponents of the Wisconsin bill argue that it will protect workers and prevent energy disruptions. But opponents argue that the bill has a bevy of negative effects. Al Gedicks, a Professor Emeritus at UW-La Crosse, says that it would crack down on protesters who have a stake in whether a pipeline is installed on or near their land.
“This bill essentially criminalizes social protests against pipelines which have been known and are continuing to pose significant environmental threats to communities where there are spills of oil and tar sands, substances that threaten the drinking water of people in those communities,” says Gedicks.
Gedicks also says that trespassing is already a crime, this bill would just make the punishment more severe. The bill explicitly does not apply to protests that arise from labor disputes such as salaries, benefits, or labor conditions.
Observers have also criticized the bill for not protecting landowners. Mark Borchardt lives within what he claims is spitting distance from oil pipelines. He says he is worried that, under the proposed bill, the energy company that leases his land could have him and his family arrested.
“I’ve read the bill in detail and there is no language in there that prevents myself or my wife, my family being arrested on the land upon which Enbridge has leased and runs these four oil pipelines across,” says Borchardt. “Time and time again they need to be on my property. It’s not always with my prior approval. I had a little altercation with them this last spring over trimming of trees. And with a bill like this, instead of solving the problem, it might be easier to just call the sheriff and have me arrested.”
The bill is awaiting Evers’ judgment. An amendment that would have made the bill only apply to people who intended to harm others was voted down in the Senate.