Why Greenpeace Activists Dangled From a Bridge in Texas — and Face 2 Years in Prison
It was early in the morning last Thursday, and Jonathan Butler was standing on the Fred Hartman Bridge, helping 11 fellow Greenpeace activists rappel down and suspend themselves over the Houston Ship Channel. The protesters dangled in the air most of the day, shutting down a part of one of the country's largest ports for oil.
More than 700,000 barrels of oil passed through the Houston Ship Channel last year, accounting for a third of U.S. crude oil exports. From the bridge, Butler could see the labyrinth of refineries on both sides of the channel — the type of facilities which Texas had recently passed a law to protect. The law was one of a wave of so-called critical infrastructure bills that state lawmakers have enacted across the country to punish protesters who interfere with oil and gas operations.
Butler and roughly two dozen other activists planned to end their protest 24 hours after it started. But before they could, the Harris County Sheriff's Office arrested the Greenpeace activists and charged them with a felony — obstructing critical infrastructure — making them the first people to be charged under the new law. It makes knowingly damaging so-called critical infrastructure a third-degree felony, on par with indecent exposure to a child. If convicted, they could spend two years in prison.
Nicole Debord, a Greenpeace attorney, called the charges "an unusual test case" and said she looks forward to challenging the law. "This arrest didn't have to happen," she said. "The protest was scheduled to end at a certain time, and if law enforcement had just let the protesters be, they would have ultimately just ended the protest and everyone would have walked away."
The Harris County District Attorney's office also charged the protesters with obstructing a highway and trespassing, a misdemeanor that carries up to 180 days in prison and a $2,000 fine. Of the 26 protesters, 22 have been charged with a federal misdemeanor for obstructing navigable waters, which could mean as much as one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. They were all released over the weekend after spending two nights in custody.
In the years after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline captured national attention, states have rushed to pass laws that levy hefty jail terms and fines for protesting near pipelines, compressor stations, refineries and other infrastructure deemed "critical." So far Texas and seven other states across the Midwest and South have put these laws on the books. Similar legislation has been introduced in at least a dozen others, according to the International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking legislation criminalizing protest around the country.
Proponents of such laws — many with ties to the fossil fuel industry — have argued that they're necessary to deter rogue activists who might damage oil and gas facilities and put lives at risk. Their opponents point out that laws already exist to punish such activities and that the new wave of laws criminalizes free speech.
The laws are modeled after legislation circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch brothers. The group has been pushing such laws in state legislatures, touting its successes in newsletters. The Texas lawmakers behind the state's critical infrastructure bill attended ALEC conferences in the last few years.
After Louisiana passed one such measure last year, at least 16 protesters have been arrested and charged under the state's "critical infrastructure" law. Three of them, who were trying to block construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, are now fighting the charges and challenging the law in a U.S. district court, claiming it violates their free speech rights.
Brianna Gibson, a Greenpeace activist arrested and charged last week alongside Butler, said the group had picked the Fred Hartman Bridge in part to highlight the disproportionate burden the fossil fuel industry places on black and brown communities in East Houston. Residents in those neighborhoods deal with poorer air quality and a higher risk of cancer than on average in the city.
Gibson, who lives in Chicago and was one of the 11 who rappelled down the side of the bridge, said she felt a responsibility to act because "my family, my community, and the people I love are deeply impacted by issues like environmental racism."
Dane Schiller, a spokesperson for the Harris County district attorney's office, said that the case will be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether there's sufficient evidence for a felony indictment. "Prosecutors could be personally sympathetic to their message and their cause, but these individuals knowingly and deliberately broke the law," he said.
Although parts of the Houston Ship Channel were shut down for 22 hours, the economic impact appears minimal. Petty Officer Kelly Parker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, told Grist that sections of the ship channel are routinely shut down when fog makes it hard to see. As a result, long lines to pass under the bridge are common, and most operators factor in delays.
Parker estimated that about 300 vessels pass under the Fred Hartman Bridge every day, the vast majority of which are smaller towing and pilot vessels. "Obviously we don't want to shut down any part of the ship channel, but it does happen fairly frequently due to weather," he said.
Both Gibson and Butler worry about what happens if they get a felony conviction. Gibson, a first generation college graduate, is helping support her mother and brother's children. Butler said that life was "difficult enough" as a black and queer person and a conviction would make life "a lot more difficult."
Still, Butler believes the protest was worth it. "The impact of climate change is happening now, and it's going to continue to happen if we don't take bold action. That's what it really comes down to."
This story originally appeared in Grist. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.