If one of the biggest climate stories of 2016 was the growing public resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure – which culminated in the protests at Standing Rock, where thousands joined with indigenous communities to fight against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline – then the story of 2017 might be the response, largely from fossil fuel companies and conservative politicians, to clamp down on civil disobedience. In August, Energy Transfer Partners – the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline – filed a lawsuit against a handful of environmental groups that participated in the protests at Standing Rock, accusing the groups of engaging in “Acts of terrorism” as well as “Destruction of private and federal lands.” In the lawsuit, the company claims that actions by Greenpeace and other organizations cost $300 million in damages; it could seek up to three times that amount in court. Leaked documents obtained by the Intercept in May revealed that TigerSwan, the private security firm hired to monitor the protests, purposefully used military-style counter-terrorism measures, and coordinated with law enforcement in at least five states, to oppose the protests at Standing Rock.
“I think that it’s obvious that it’s not just a militarization of the response, it’s also the use of counter-intel kinds of practice to try to smear folks,” Leonard Higgins, one of the Valve Turners who was found guilty of felony charges, said of the larger trend towards criminalizing environmental protest. In September of 2016, Democracy Now! recorded instances of security personnel employed by Energy Transfer Partners using dogs against peaceful protesters, and police officers reportedly used water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas on crowds. The letter sparked concern from activists, who worried that peaceful environmental protesters could be treated like the J20 defendants, who were part of a mass arrest on Inauguration Day.
Still, with the Trump administration leaving little hope for environmental and climate groups that once saw the federal government as a potential ally, Skaggs said she views protest as an important tool for activists, despite the increased threat of prosecution.