After a string of highly publicized attacks on energy pipelines in different areas of the country, several Congressmen addressed a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, asking that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) respond to several questions concerning the ability and intent of the DOJ to investigate and prosecute criminal activity against energy infrastructure at the federal level. The letter also asks for DOJ clarification on whether attacks against the nation’s energy infrastructure fall within the DOJ’s understanding of 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5), which defines “domestic terrorism” to include activities that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” and that “appear to be intended to . . . influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
The letter, signed by more than eighty Congressional representatives, describes recent attempts by various activist groups to sabotage oil and gas pipeline transportation as “illegal and potentially fatal.” It directly references an October 11, 2016, incident where a coordinated group of environmental activists attempted to shut down five major cross-border oil pipelines by entering valve stations in remote locations in four states to unlock shut-off valves on each of the lines. This incident was one of a several attempts in the past year by activists to make a physical attack on pipeline operations as a means of environmental protest. Despite the increasing prevalence of such activities, the regulatory approach to pipeline security issues to date has been only through voluntary initiatives by facility owners and operators in accordance with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security guidance and best practice recommendations. It remains to be seen whether recent events will build momentum for more oversight of pipeline security practices, as well as harsher punishments for saboteurs.
While DOJ has not issued a formal response to the legislators’ letter (which was issued on October 23, 2017), Reuters reports that last week, DOJ pledged to prosecute protesters who damage oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, stating that it is committed to vigorously prosecuting anyone who damages “critical energy infrastructure in violation of federal law.”