A pair of legislative bills recently passed in the House and Senate restricting the use of drones by private citizens to survey Texas oilfields. Because the two versions differ, they will have to be reconciled in order to make it to the Governor’s desk for approval or rejection. In this post, we will examine the arguments for or against this new legislation and what that could mean for oilfield owners and drone enthusiasts.
Both versions of the bill, titled House Bill 1643, seek to classify oilfields, telecommunications facilities, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as critical infrastructure under law. It is currently illegal to fly planes or drones less than 400 feet above critical infrastructure sites. Violators face a Class B misdemeanor and up to 180 days in jail if caught. As of now, dams, power plants, refineries, pipelines, and several other facilities are considered critical infrastructure.
Supporters of the bill, authored by Representative Drew Springer (R-Muenster), cite safety as the compelling impetus behind the proposed legislation. Director of government relations for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association Josh Winegarner told the Texas Observer “Right now, feedyard owners don’t know who is flying the drones over their operations, why they are flying them, or what those drones could potentially be carrying that could cause harm to livestock and our food supply.”
Detractors believe the new legislation offers unnecessary, and perhaps even unconstitutional, protection for investors in the oil and gas, telecommunications, and agriculture industries. Environmental and animal rights advocacy groups have recently used drones to uncover illegal and unethical operations at these kinds of facilities and they argue adding them to the critical infrastructure list infringes on their First Amendment rights.
Alicia Calzada, a Haynes and Boone media attorney and counselor for the National Press Photographers Association, expressed concerns for the rights of reporters and activists, stating, “It’s taking a law that’s already unconstitutional and making it worse.”
Texas already has some of the strictest and most unusual laws regarding civilian use of drones among states that have passed drone legislation. Most other states, including Florida, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, and Tennessee, restrict the use drone surveillance for law enforcement officials. Conversely, Texas has outlawed drone photography and video by private citizens.
Things to Consider
There are opinions on both sides about changes that may make more sense regarding this legislation. For one, restricting the use of drones over CAFOs does seem to make sense; ostensibly, grazing animals are exposed to potential contamination and pollutants. However, do oilfields and telecommunications structures need those same protections? Could surveillance be restricted without criminalizing the flying of the drones? Will this bill allow business owners in the affected industries to circumvent laws regarding animal rights and oilfield operations?