In just the past month, lawmakers in Utah, Georgia and Tennessee have passed legislation granting police broad new authority to charge anyone who interferes with or disrupts the operations of power plants and pipelines with felonies carrying years in prison.
Over the past five years, nearly two dozen states have enacted similar bills, all following the format of a model bill right-wing operatives working with fossil fuel lobbyists designed to thwart future climate protests like those against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Early on, proponents were explicit about targeting environmentalists and community activists, pushing measures that threatened to bankrupt small-town Ohio churches whose parishioners took part in demonstrations with legal fines or throw a Louisiana grandmother in prison for three years for stepping on a petrochemical company’s land to visit the mass grave containing her enslaved ancestors. It obviously proved controversial: The Buckeye State passed its law, but the governor vetoed the Bayou State bill.
This time, however, state lawmakers are pitching the harsh new penalties in their bills as the key to going after a different kind of political target: far-right extremists.
It’s a rhetorical shift playing off a recent resurgence of neo-Nazi plots against the power grid, but free-speech advocates and extremism experts told HuffPost that prosecutors remain far more likely to use the statutes to charge left-wing and environmental activists.
Lawmakers in Utah, Georgia and Tennessee pitched their bills as timely responses to the record wave of cyber- and physical attacks on the United States’ aging network of electrical grids last year. In a span of just weeks in December, gunmen damaged substations on opposite coasts and left tens of thousands of people without power for days.
In Tacoma, Washington, the alleged shooters told police the Christmas Day grid sabotage was part of a doomed ploy to get away with stealing a cash register, according to court documents. In rural Moore County, North Carolina, where the blackout lasted four days, the perpetrators remain at large, their identities and motives a mystery.
At least four more states ― Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina and Oklahoma ― are considering versions of the same legislation passed in Utah, Georgia and Tennessee.
Written by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council around 2017, the model bill specifically targeted the five “Valve Turner” activists who, in a 2016 show of solidarity with environmentalists and Native Americans rallying to block the construction of an oil line under a sacred Indigenous waterway, snipped through chain-link fence and cranked the emergency valves shut at oil pipelines in four states, temporarily disabling the infrastructure feeding 15% of U.S. daily oil consumption.
Since then, lawmakers in nearly every state have introduced legislation touching on the issue, in many cases using language identical to that of the ALEC bill. Since Tennessee’s latest legislation only amended existing law, Georgia is set to become the 20th state to enact such a statute, once Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signs the bill there.
As recently as 2019, energy trade associations were raising the specter of green radicals once again halting the flow of oil, insisting even reversible, nonviolent acts of sabotage were tantamount to terrorism. But following the back-to-back substation shootings last December, ALEC published a blog post recasting its model bill as the obvious solution.
“The legislation was originally meant to respond to climate activists, and it’s not likely in my opinion that the states pushing these initiatives are going to use them responsibly,” said Matt Kriner, a senior scholar at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in California. “In other words, they’re not likely to levy them with an objective lens, but rather use them as post-hoc justification for going after their original targets.”
Worse yet, the laws do not require utilities to build protective barriers or additional transmission lines to fortify power systems, steps federal researchers identified as key to averting blackouts.
‘We Live In Different Times, Folks’
Far-right militant groups in the U.S. have long had electrical infrastructure in their crosshairs. But the past three years have seen an uptick in calls to attack the grid, according to federal authorities and independent researchers who monitor the dark-web extremist networks whose influence has grown over the past decade. The FBI recently busted at least two major plots to destroy substations, arresting a well-known neo-Nazi leader in February for allegedly planning to cripple the Baltimore power grid.
Utah state Rep. Carl Albrecht (R) cited the Maryland incident when responding to criticism that the penalties proposed in his state’s bill — up to five years in state prison — “were a little high.”
“This stuff’s pretty critical, folks. It’s life-threatening when you take electricity out of our lives intentionally,” Albrecht said, citing his previous career at the Garkane Energy Cooperative, a power utility serving southern Utah and northern Arizona.
“We live in different times, folks,” he said. “Things are getting quite serious. There’s a lot of folks who would like to see people suffer.”
When fossil fuel trade associations started shopping the bill around state legislatures in 2017, their lobbyists struggled to find examples of any supposed ecoterrorist threat looming over the nation’s pipelines and power stations.
That December, five energy trade groups and an oil company sent a letter to lawmakers listing five purported examples of threats environmentalists posed to their infrastructure. Just one ― the Valve Turners case, which was being prosecuted at the time ― was known to have involved activists of any stripe. Convicted perpetrators in two other cases appeared to be suffering from mental illness. The remaining two cases had not been solved, but investigators suspected disgruntled former employees.
“The vast majority of actual attacks against substations or power plants are not extremist-related at all. When they find culprits, they tend to be drunk people or people angry at the electric company,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Extremists constantly talk about targeting different things. It doesn’t mean they actually go out and target things. There’s a lot of discussion, fewer plots, and fewer still actual attacks.”
It’s hardly just the political right talking about going after fossil fuel infrastructure. In his 2021 polemic “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” the Swedish socialist and writer Andreas Malm urged climate activists to abandon their “fetish” for pacifism and embrace sabotage as a tactic. Malm’s book, which captivated New York Times columnist Ezra Klein and prompted The New Republic to make “the climate case for property destruction,” is set to be released as a chic, dramatized movie adaptation this month.
But since 2020, it’s far-right extremists who have repeatedly “developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure,” the Department of Homeland Security concluded in January, in an internal memo published by CBS News.
Strained by extreme weather, decades of disinvestment and a haphazard transition away from coal, the country’s aging network of electrical grids makes for an easy target. Taking out just 20 of the U.S.’s roughly 55,000 substations could be enough to trigger nationwide blackouts, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told “60 Minutes” last year.
There are steps electrical companies could take to fortify the grid, many of which are already needed to adapt the power system to a hotter future in which more demand comes from electric cars, heat pumps and hydrogen fuel plants.
Earlier this year, the Congressional Research Service highlighted the potential need for more physical barriers at critical infrastructure sites and investments in additional power lines to make the grid more resilient. The federal memo suggested Congress could investigate whether security is enough of a corporate priority for energy companies. It also noted that neither the Washington nor the North Carolina substations attacked in December were subject to federal security standards, another potential regulatory gap for U.S. lawmakers to consider.
But those weren’t on the agenda for Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who testified before state lawmakers in North Carolina that the moment when roughly 45,000 people lost power on Dec. 3 was “terrifying.”
Somewhat bizarrely, Fields then suggested that his investigation was held back by North Carolina’s statutes governing electrical grid sabotage. Under existing state laws, someone with no criminal record convicted of damaging electrical infrastructure would likely get off with probation, according to The Fayetteville Observer, a daily newspaper near Moore County. A repeat offender could see two years behind bars.
Punishing people who even attempt to “obstruct, impede, or impair” energy facilities with felony charges carrying up to 19 years in prison ― the same kind faced by first-degree kidnappers and rapists ― would aid his office’s efforts, Fields said.
“We’re very thankful for this bill that we can hopefully prosecute these folks that caused the damage in our county,” Fields testified.
The laws showed little deterrent effect in Indiana, Ohio, Texas or Wisconsin.
In 2019, the year all four states approved new penalties for interfering with critical infrastructure, three men in their early 20s living in those states ― one defendant split his time between Indiana and Texas ― hatched a plan to attack power stations, hoping the resulting blackouts would trigger enough economic distress and civil unrest to spark a fascist revolution.
By 2020, the men were meeting to practice firing assault rifles and distribute necklaces filled with fentanyl that the plotters agreed to ingest if they were caught by police. All three were arrested and charged under federal anti-terrorism statutes, and pleaded guilty in February 2022.
The most recent high-profile alleged white supremacist plot against the power grid took place in Maryland, a state that twice rejected bills proposing new penalties for utility sabotage.
The would-be attackers allegedly conspired to shoot out five substations around Baltimore, with the aim of plunging a mostly Black city ― where literally keeping the lights on is part of a daily struggle for many ― into total chaos. One of the two people whom federal authorities charged in February is Brandon Russell, the 27-year-old co-founder of the Atomwaffen Division ― a neo-Nazi group that believes “modern, post-industrial society cannot be redeemed” and “ought to be driven into apocalyptic collapse so a white ethnostate or whites-only utopia can be constructed in its wake,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It’s unlikely that the threat of new state felonies would have dissuaded such radicals, Pitcavage said.
“In general, laws like this don’t have much deterrent effect on extremists simply because extremists are fanatics to their causes and are willing to break laws in service of their causes,” Pitcavage said. “But I can’t say they won’t have any deterrence, because there are some cases where certain types of criminal activity may have decreased over time.”
Specifically, Pitcavage pointed to the wave of sabotage by animal rights activists and environmentalists in the 1990s and early 2000s ― and the decrease that followed the passage of harsher state and federal laws, including the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
A Critical Test In Georgia ― Before The Latest Bill Even Passes
Even before the latest legislation passed in Georgia’s Republican-controlled state House, a dramatic clash between police and protesters over plans to clear a forest for a law enforcement training facility set up a vital test over how prosecutors would use new state penalties against demonstrators.
While Georgia resisted past proposals to levy harsher punishments against people who interfere with energy infrastructure, lawmakers in 2017 did approve legislation to vastly expand the scope of the state’s domestic terrorism law. Initially, acts intended to kill or injure at least 10 people qualified as terrorism. The updated law included property crimes committed with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” by “intimidation or coercion.”
In March, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations charged 23 protesters with domestic terrorism for allegedly entering the construction area for the training center in the forest and throwing “large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police officers,” destroying “multiple pieces of construction equipment by fire and vandalism.”
Atlanta officials say the facility will bring in money for the city and train police to avoid deadly mistakes by rehearsing on a course designed like a real urban block, with homes, a convenience store and a nightclub.
Opponents say the development, nicknamed “Cop City,” will rob neighbors of the South River Forest’s shade and fresh air, as a growing body of research describes trees as lifesavers in increasingly extreme heat waves. Where once there was birdsong there would instead be gunfire, shouts and explosions, all in service of what many in the majority-Black city already see as an overly militarized police presence.
As it is, officers opened fire on Manuel Paez Terán’s tent in the forest near Cop City during a raid in January, shooting the activist more than a dozen times in what appears to be the first police killing of an environmentalist in modern U.S. history.
Convicting an accused domestic terrorist requires “a lot of proof elements with respect to state of mind and intent and purpose,” said Georgia state Rep. Rob Leverett, the Republican from a rural district east of Athens who sponsored the new legislation. The maximum sentence for criminal property damage under existing law was 10 years.
His bill would offer law enforcement a “mid-range charge,” he said, allowing prosecutors to seek up to 20 years in prison for defendants who, according to the bill, “alter or interfere” with energy infrastructure or “interfere with the proper action” of such a facility “knowingly and without authority and by either force or violence.”
“There are times when it’s just simple damage and we don’t really know, for example in North Carolina, if that was just two people seeing who was the better shot and could hit the shiny thing in the substation with their shotgun or if it was truly someone trying to commit an act of domestic terror,” Leverett said during a hearing at the Georgia House of Representatives last month.
“This is necessary at this point to send a message to those who would try to damage vital infrastructure, which can have such a more far-ranging impact than simply damaging a piece of property,” he added. “If you damage a utility’s truck depot, that’s bad, but that’s generally not going to put 45,000 people in the dark and absolute cold during the week before Christmas.”
In Tennessee, vandalizing power lines, cables, towers or fixtures to steal electricity was already a felony charge. In 2019, state lawmakers amended the law to add tampering with critical infrastructure to the list. Earlier this month, legislators approved new measures to increase the severity of the felony charges for anyone who “destroys, injures, interrupts, or interferes with critical infrastructure.”
“What this bill is seeking to do is to get these people that are taking high-powered rifles and going to substations and shooting out breaker boxes and junction boxes… and attempting to disrupt the electrical supply to a population,” state Rep. Clark Boyd (R), the legislation’s sponsor, told WLPN.
The Nashville public radio station described the scenario Boyd outlined as “pretty uncommon.” Since 2017, “there has been an average of zero” such incidents, the head of the Tennessee General Assembly’s fiscal review committee concluded in a legislative memo.
But the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority has plans to build new gas-fired power plants and pipelines to fuel them, WLPN reported, potentially drawing new protests.
If legislators really “wanted to keep people’s lights on, they’d be more focused on making our energy infrastructure cleaner and modernizing the grid,” said Connor Gibson, an independent researcher who is tracking the influence of anti-protest legislation with the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.
“Because violence and property destruction are already illegal everywhere, it just shows that politicians are claiming to protect oil and utility companies when all theses laws actually change is upping the stakes for people engaged in nonviolent trespass,” Gibson said.
Earlier this year, Idaho proposed up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine for simply trespassing once on an energy company’s land, with up to 10 years and $10,000 for a second offense. The bill was approved by the House judiciary committee in February but died before coming up for a floor vote when the legislative session ended on March 31.
Similar bills in Illinois and Minnesota are active but have yet to come up for hearings and are less likely to advance under liberal Democratic governors.
“These laws were intended to criminalize activities that were First Amendment-protected or might be deemed ‘good trouble’ in the John Lewis mentality,” said Kriner, the Middlebury Institute scholar, referring to the late Georgia Democrat and civil rights activist.
It seems unlikely, Kriner said, that the new statutes will prompt states to spend more time and money trying to foil right-wing plots.
Whether and whom the laws deter ― and from what ― is sort of beside the point, Pitcavage said. Laws against stealing automobiles have not eliminated car theft.
“That doesn’t mean car theft shouldn’t be punished,” Pitcavage said. “There are victims and harm involved.”
The critical infrastructure laws, he added, would almost certainly be used to prosecute actual physical attacks on grid infrastructure, regardless of what ideology motivated the saboteur. And those threats are multiplying: Power plants reported nearly 1,700 incidents involving physical security issues to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center last year ― up 10.5% from 2021, the trade publication Utility Dive reported.
“To the extent the laws may be misapplied to protesters, it’d most likely affect people on the left simply because they would be the ones engaging in it,” Pitcavage said. “Right-wing extremists don’t tend to protest... whereas left-wing extremists may engage in a wide variety of protests.”