OKLAHOMA CITY — A second bill intended to discourage demonstrations like recent ones in North Dakota and elsewhere passed off the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives on Thursday.
House Bill 2128, by Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, would make anyone “arrested or convicted of trespass” liable for damages resulting from the trespass, and extends liability to any “person or entity that compensates or remunerates a person for trespassing.”
Attorneys say trespassing for purposes of damaging or destroying property is covered by current law, but some believe those laws are not strict enough.
At least 18 states, according to news reports, have passed or are considering legislation to curb activities that interfere with or damage property or business enterprises.
HB 2128 is a companion to HB 1123, by Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, which provides for criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison and $1 million in fines for “tampering” or conspiring to do so with “critical infrastructure,” including oil and gas pipelines and refineries, utilities and certain manufacturing enterprises.
The House gave approval to HB 1123 on Tuesday.
McBride said his bill is intended to discourage “paid protesters,” who he said were largely responsible for blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Google ‘paid protesters,’ ” he said when pressed on the matter.
“We don’t want that kind of activity here,” McBride said.
Despite considerable talk about paid protesters at the North Dakota standoff and at demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, no one has ever actually been identified as such.
Some protesters, though, have received assistance through such things as crowdsourcing, nonprofit organizations and American Indian tribes. Some observers say measures like Biggs’ and McBride’s, while ostensibly aimed at lawbreakers, are really intended to intimidate potential protesters.
“Few, if any, organizations will be willing to organize an entirely legal protest demonstration at an industrial site that causes, or could cause, serious environmental harm if they face the possibility of being fined and economically ruined should one person attending the demonstration then decide on their own to do something illegal,” said Douglas Parr, an Oklahoma City attorney who has defended environmental protesters.
Parr said existing laws already provide criminal and civil penalties for malicious destruction of property and conspiracy.
Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, asked whether a group or individual providing meals or lodging to someone arrested for but not convicted of trespass could be forced to pay damages, even though the person arrested turned out to be innocent of the underlying charge.
“Possibly,” McBride replied.
“So this bill could punish people for completely lawful activity?” Walke asked.
“No,” McBride replied.
The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association tweeted congratulations to McBride on the bill’s passage minutes after it cleared the House by a vote of 68-23, with eight members not voting. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Later Thursday morning, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced several measures intended to update the state’s oil and gas laws and possibly revamp the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the industry.
Of particular interest are laws related to mineral rights and the “long laterals” now possible with horizontal drilling.
“We want Oklahoma to continue to be a major oil and gas producer, and if we’re going to do that we have to adjust our oil and gas law,” said Chairman Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa.
Watson said the issues involved are so complex that the Legislature is depending on the industry itself to sort most of them out.
“There are a lot of nuances,” Watson said. “My concern is we’ve got to do something today to adapt to new technology. I think everybody understands that. There are a lot of players involved.”