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States take stand against potential threats to energy assets amid pandemic

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., at least three states have passed laws in the last few weeks strengthening criminal punishments for those who damage or tamper with critical energy infrastructure.

South Dakota, West Virginia and Kentucky designated various types fossil fuel infrastructure as critical or key assets, an action that one environmental group viewed as a potential threat to protesters.

State governments have previously sought to discourage pipeline interference and to recover costs from protests, which can at times be funded by out-of-state organizations. Federal lawmakers have also appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice to address protesters who interfere with pipelines and other energy infrastructure.

On March 16, Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed a law that amended the definition of "key infrastructure assets" to include natural gas and petroleum pipelines. A person tampering with those assets "in a manner that renders the operations harmful or dangerous" would be guilty of criminal mischief in the first degree, according to the legislation's summary.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed similar legislation March 25 designating petroleum refineries, natural gas compressor stations, gas processing plants, pipelines, and power generating facilities and other assets as a "critical infrastructure facility." Anyone who "willfully damages, destroys, vandalizes, defaces, or tampers with equipment in a critical infrastructure facility" with damage exceeding $2,500 could face a felony charge and up to $5,000 in fines or up to five years in prison, the bill states.

In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem approved a bill in March that deemed oil and gas facilities critical, noting that approaching these facilities would constitute criminal trespass. That same month, Noem also designated riots as a felony violation, noting that a riot involves causing any damage to property.

Greenpeace, a conservation group that leads many fossil fuel protests around the world, condemned the laws. While the nation focuses on the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent federal responses, refinery and pipeline companies are "continuing to push for laws to put peaceful protesters in prison," Greenpeace USA researcher Connor Gibson said.

"These revenge laws are intended to slow protests against new oil & gas infrastructure projects that are not viable with the price of oil at an unprecedented low," Gibson said in a statement. "A barrel of Canadian tar sands oil is literally worth less than a barrel of toy monkeys right now, and yet, companies like Enbridge Inc. and TC Energy Corp. continue with pipeline projects that very well could become stranded assets."