Big Oil Bill Pushes Extreme Criminal Penalties in Illinois

Big fossil fuel companies are pushing a "pipeline protest" bill in Illinois (HB 1633) that would chill free speech and impose unnecessary and extreme criminal penalties for peaceful protests.
Young Black Woman with Stop the Pipeline Sign
Credit: Photo: Elvert Barnes, Flickr. CC 3.0.

2020 UPDATE: the "pipeline protest" bill has returned in the 2020 session with minor changes; the new bill number is SB 3484. Advocates for civil rights, free speech, and environmental justice are once again opposing this bill. Call your legislators and tell them to oppose SB 3484!

2019 UPDATE: after major public pushback including hundreds of calls and thousands of emails to legislators, HB 1633 was tabled in the Illinois Senate for the 2019 session, meaning it cannot pass or even be called to a vote. This is a great victory for Illinoisans concerned about freedom of speech, equity in the criminal justice system, and the right to peaceful protest.

A so-called “pipeline protest” bill (HB 1633) is winding its way through the Illinois legislature that would significantly increase criminal penalties for anyone entering or causing damage to “critical infrastructure facilities,” a term which is defined broadly to include — among other things — virtually any facility for extracting, storing, processing, transporting, or burning fossil fuels.

It is based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council or “ALEC” (a right-wing lobbying group funded by big fossil fuel interests like Peabody Coal and the Koch Brothers), and is part of a wave of similar bills being pushed around the country.

Turns low-level offenses into felonies

The bill invents new crimes with excessive penalties for activities that are already covered under Illinois’ existing laws. Unlike existing laws, HB 1633 would not set any minimum on the amount of property damage that constitutes a felony. Therefore, it appears that under this law, something as small as breaking a zip tie could result in felony charges punishable by up to 5 years in prison and $100,000 in fines. Someone could face another felony charge and another 5 years in jail if they had “intent” to “inhibit operations of the facility.”

What would be considered “inhibiting operations?” It’s not hard to imagine that the authors of this bill intend it as a bludgeon against peaceful protests like those we saw against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, but also seems to apply to people who aren't protestors, such as homeless people in rail yards or kids who sneak into the wrong parking lot. It could exacerbate discrepancies in charges and sentencing that plague our criminal justice system and disproportionately affect people of color and Indigenous communities. Similar laws across the country are already being challenged in court.

Broad opposition, fossil fuel support

Virtually all environmental groups in Illinois including the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who has recognized this bill as an environmental justice issue, are opposed to HB 1633. The Illinois ACLU, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Black Lives Matter Chicago, the National Lawyers’ Guild and more than 4,200 other people and organizations including faith, labor, and community groups have also registered opposition to the bill.

HB 1633 is being marketed as an anti-terrorism bill, but nearly half of the so-called “critical infrastructure” facilities it covers are related to the fossil fuel industry. Its supporters include the Illinois Coal Association, the state affiliate of the American Petroleum Institute, and a list of infamous fossil fuel pipeline companies:

Unnecessary and arbitrary

When asked by a journalist “if they know of any significant problems here in Illinois that prompted this legislation” the bill’s supporters couldn’t name a single one. Illinois already has laws that address the actions of individuals who damage or destroy private property. This bill is being sold as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Illinois doesn’t need massive out-of-state fossil fuel corporations or the pro-polluter, anti-union group ALEC dictating state laws that would give special treatment to fossil fuel companies’ property.

Illinois has seen a political shift in recent years that could usher in forward-thinking climate and criminal justice policies that the state desperately needs. Yet this bill, backed by extreme right-wing interest groups, has already passed the state house and is now in the senate.

Our elected leaders should oppose HB 1633, which would give special treatment to fossil fuel companies’ property, arbitrarily penalize Illinoisans with excessive criminal charges, and chill free speech and peaceful protest.