DENVER – A measure that would augment penalties on vandals of oil- and gas-production equipment cleared a Senate committee 6-5 with Republicans in support.
The bill comes as a response to increased boldness by some activists who are taking to social media to display their disruptive actions, and it was not prompted by the industry, said Sen. Jerry Sonneberg, R-Sterling, sponsor of Senate Bill 35.
The measure would increase the charge from a Class 2 misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony for a number of actions that disrupt “any equipment used or associated with oil or gas gathering operations.”
Two sections outline situations in which a felony could be enforced, one for destruction and tampering of equipment and one for altering, obstructing, interrupting or interfering with the equipment.
This second section spurred the conversation to focus not on protection of property, oil and gas workers and nearby communities, but on First Amendment rights.
The wording, which critics said left it open to wide interpretation, was targeted during public testimony and by Democrats on the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said the language did not specify the location where interfering had to occur – meaning it could be applied to protesters on public property.
“Maybe that’s not the intent or the implication of this language, but it could be used in that way to pretty unfairly charge somebody with a felony who’s doing something that I think we would all agree is probably protected speech,” Fenberg said.
Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said there are already statutes in place governing charges such as trespassing and destruction of private property.
Sonneberg responded: “All I’m doing is taking what we have in law and increasing the penalty, and the reason I’m doing that is what we’ve seen is people now videotaping themselves taking bolt cutters, cutting chains and locks off of valves and changing pressure on pipelines.”
Democrats noted that research has found only one conviction for tampering with oil and gas equipment in the past three years.
“If we look at how many reports have been made, there has not been much tampering done to equipment, so I’m not quite sure there is a problem that needs to be addressed,”said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said.