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New law protects the interests of businesses, could infringe on first amendment right to free speech.

It’s no secret that Texans will fight fiercely for their land. Whether the main concern is land rights or preserving water, activists have long fought against government overreach and private companies infiltrating local spaces.

For this reason, landowners and free speech advocates are concerned about a Texas bill set to become law on September 1. During the 86th legislative session, legislators passed HB 3557 as part of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which supports chemical, natural resources, electrical and oil and gas industries. 

The bill enables more severe punishments for those accused of trespassing and/or damaging a critical infrastructure facility. Under the new law, violators will face penalties of up to a second degree felony, fines up to $20,000, and a 20-year maximum incarceration sentence.

For those that oppose the proposed Permian Highway Pipeline, run by Kinder Morgan Texas, this new law feels like a warning against protesting. This 430-mile underground pipeline creates conflict with landowners that see the pipeline as a threat to land they own, and HB 3557 could potentially criminalize protestors.

Not surprisingly, the Texas Oil & Gas Association claims the bill provides property owners and pipeline companies greater protections against illegal activity.

The bill’s author, Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), attempted to calm fears of those who believe this bill is targeting non-violent protesters, saying on the chamber floor, “this does not affect those who choose to peacefully protest.” 

Environmental advocacy groups disagree. The Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter’s interim director Cyrus Reed told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the bill “was never about safety and security…[it was about] silencing protesters trying to protect their water and land.” Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment went so far as to say the oil and gas industry “owns the Capitol building.”

Representative Gene Wu, (D-Houston) and Rep Erin Zwiener, (D-Driftwood) both spoke against the bill. Representative Wu stated the bill created “extremely harsh punishment” for protestors. Representative Zwiener had many back and forth conversations with Representative Paddie, and introduced an amendment to protect landowners seeking to protest unwanted industrial operations on their land.

The amendment was intended to protect the “landowner who perhaps turns their cows out during construction to intentionally mess with the operator, or the landowner who parks their truck in the way” of an industrial easement. The amendment failed, and the bill passed with a vote of 90 to 51. 

Written by RA News staff.

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