Texas prosecutors downgraded charges filed against a group of Greenpeace activists on Wednesday, deferring a potential courtroom debate over a controversial new law the state passed last year.
More than two dozen protesters were arrested in September after several had dangled themselves off a bridge over the Houston Ship Channel, a vital conduit in one of the nation's busiest oil ports.
The Harris County District Attorney's office had originally charged the protesters with felonies under the new law, which imposes harsh penalties on anyone who disrupts energy infrastructure. But prosecutors changed the charges to misdemeanors on the same day that a grand jury indicted 23 of the protesters on those misdemeanors.
The felony charges were the first issued by prosecutors under similar laws that have been enacted in at least eight other states since 2017. The bills generally allow prosecutors to seek lengthy prison terms and steep fines for people who trespass on or damage "critical infrastructure" facilities, including pipeline construction sites.
The Texas protesters had faced up to two years in prison and $10,000 in fines under the felony charges, said Ryan Schleeter, a Greenpeace spokesman. He said the organization's lawyers had argued that the activists hadn't violated the new law, and that "the law is intended to chill protest and free speech."
Twenty-two of the activists also face separate federal misdemeanor charges connected to the protest, Schleeter said. Prosecutors dropped all charges against another six before the indictment.
Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, said in an email that "prosecutors looked further into the incident, applied the law, and presented all the evidence to grand jurors for consideration." He added that "the defendants descended on Houston from around the country to disrupt the port in a publicity stunt, but what they did was endanger first responders, cost taxpayers $420,000, and private business untold millions of dollars."
The Texas law mirrors model legislation circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded organization that brings together state lawmakers and corporate policy experts. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 19 other states since 2017, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, including several that are awaiting votes this year. Energy companies have supported the legislation.
The Texas protesters were the only ones to be charged under the laws so far. While more than a dozen people were arrested in Louisiana in 2018 under a version passed there, prosecutors have yet to formally press charges, according to their lawyer, Bill Quigley. Some of those activists joined a federal lawsuit challenging the state's law as unconstitutional.
Environmental, indigenous and civil liberties advocates say the industry-backed laws target civil disobedience and the high profile protests that have become increasingly popular among climate activists. Some of the bills' sponsors have said they introduced the legislation in response to large protests against fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the 2016 encampment at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
A similar bill enacted in South Dakota was blocked by a judge last year, and the state eventually agreed not to enforce portions of the law. This year, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem introduced new legislation that the American Civil Liberties Union said would intimidate peaceful protesters. The legislation has already passed through the state House and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
South Dakota is expected to see large protests in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline should construction resume. That project has been tied up in court battles.
Schleeter said Greenpeace and other organizations are still considering whether to challenge the Texas law in court, and that he hopes the decision to drop the felony charges might dissuade lawmakers in other states who are considering similar bills.
With respect to the new laws aimed at protests around oil and gas infrastructure, Schleeter said the grand jury's action in Harris County "maybe ... shows that people see through to what their purpose really is."