Herald editorial board

A bill that shouldn't be controversial has passed the North Dakota House of Representatives without controversy. We note that the phrase "shouldn't be controversial" doesn't always make it so, and especially when oil, the environment and big business are involved.

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The bill is SB 2044, which would amend state law to more clearly define that it is illegal to tamper with or damage energy facilities and other types of critical infrastructure, according to a report that originated with the Bismarck Tribune. It would increase penalties for valve-turners and groups and organizations that conspire with them.

SB 2044 was born in northeast North Dakota in 2016 when environmental activists turned an oil pipeline valve as part of a protest. Turning a valve on a pipeline is a wanton act - one that starts with trespassing, but which could lead to great economic troubles for the company that owns the pipeline.

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg; it was in her district where the 2016 incident occurred. The bill wouldn't just include oil- and gas-related sites, but would extend to other resources as well, including electrical, water, telecommunications, rail and other critical infrastructure.

In the 2016 case, two out-of-state men were charged with multiple crimes after they interfered with emergency valves on the Keystone TransCanada pipeline near Walhalla, N.D., about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks. The Herald reported at the time that the men were part of a group called Climate Direct Action, which shut down several pipelines across the country in conjunction with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests earlier that year in south-central North Dakota.

The men originally hoped to use a "necessity defense," which has become a de rigueur response for activists who claim there is no other way to protect themselves and others from harm. In the 2016 TransCanada case, the presiding judge ruled the necessity defense wouldn't be allowed.

In the end, we suspect it isn't so much about protecting themselves as it is about creating headlines to spread their message and further their cause. Still, today it's working - evidenced by this editorial.

Lawmakers, led by Myrdal, are hoping to add teeth to punishments against valve-turners in North Dakota, and we're glad to see it.

"Interruptions of such infrastructure, in especially our state but across the nation, could actually be deadly for our citizens," Myrdal said in a Bismarck Tribune report last month.

We agree, and that's why SB 2044 should be passed when it goes before the House of Representatives.

Not everyone agrees, however. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota says SB 2044 is unnecessary and that it is meant to "chill speech."

We don't see it at as an impediment to any sort of speech. Instead SB 2044 is a bill to update laws in response to ever-changing and evolving tactics being used by protesters, who have no right whatsoever to trespass and jeopardize infrastructure or commerce in the name of the environment, free speech or whatever cause to which they subscribe.