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Environment & Energy

Police Say Concerns About Pipeline Protests Are Well Founded, But It's Not Exactly Protesters' Fault

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
The Shale Insight energy conference kicked off Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center with opening remarks from U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who said he drove to Pittsburgh himself.

Law enforcement agencies aren't interested in putting protesters behind bars, according to panel speakers at the two-day Shale Insight energy conference Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

Panelists told attendees at a breakout session at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that protesting creates an inherent safety concern when it's conducted on or around manufacturing or energy extraction equipment. The annual conference is expected to draw about 1,000 attendees, according to organizers.

Michael Oglesby, first sgt. with the West Virginia State Police, told a small group Wednesday that communication between energy officials and the communities they mine from is essential.

Most demonstrators aren't unfamiliar with well sites, he said, and the company's employees might not know how to deal with protesters, especially if they aren't peaceful. Business owners big and small should also proactively introduce themselves to police and investigators, he said.

"You don't want a protest or major accident to be the first time you've met the local first responders," said Oglesby.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA

Oglesby encouraged industry insiders to invite the community in, show them the well pad and make sure law enforcement feel informed if an incident were to occur. That could include data sharing or building a rapport through email list-servs, said Mark Warden, chief sheriff's deputy in Washington County, Ohio.

Warden said most protesters are peaceful; they understand their rights and those of the property owner. But others can be difficult to deal with.

Fellow presenter and former Pennsylvania State Police trooper Mike Hutson said when incidents do occur, police often get accused of being enforcers for the shale industry.

"That isn’t the case," he said. "I've arrested people in the industry, [and] I've been involved in investigations against protest activity."

Though he, Oglesby and others said they're always on the lookout for instances of ecoterrorism -- a federal charge implying intended malice and an ideological drive -- the most common offenses are trespassing and the destruction of public or private property.

"When a crime's been committed, we're obligated -- mandated -- to take the appropriate actions," he said.

Hutson said most police officers would benefit from more training on how to deal with all types of protests. The conference concludes Thursday with a keynote address by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

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