Texas bill could mean jail time for flying a drone over oil facilities

The House and Senate want oil drilling stations added to a "critical infrastructure" list that would make drones a security risk.

The ebb and flow of legal rules when it comes to flying a drone, whether it's a cheap mainstream model or something a little more intense, is confusing. It also differs depending on country, and even state. When it comes to Texas, both the House and the Senate are pushing a bill that could attach jail sentences to any pilot found guilty of flying something over oil and gas drilling facilities, as well as telecomms infrastructure and concentrated animal feeding operations -- factory farms. Politicians want these structures added to a "critical infrastructure" list, where flying a drone lower than 400 feet aboveit would be a Class B misdemeanor and could even mean up to 180 days in jail.

The facilities would join a list that includes power plants, dams and other refineries, but critics say the additions would affect the public's First Amendment rights. Alicia Calzada, a Haynes and Boone media attorney told The Texas Observer that it takes a law "that's already unconstitutional and making it worse."

While the bill passed Senate on Wednesday, the House version-- which passed last month --is slightly different. This means the bills have to be tweaked to ensure both parts of the legislature agree on it before it becomes legal.

Texas' drone laws a generally stricter than elsewhere in the US. While many states limit how much law enforcement can use drones to monitor the public, a Texas Privacy Act aims itself more at citizens that fly drones over private property. The inclusion of concentrated animal feeding operations is particularly contentious, with a diminished argument as how they can be classified "critical infrastructure".

Drones ares a safer, cheaper option for independently monitoring emissions from oil sites -- reporters or researchers would otherwise have to charter a helicopter for similar results. Calzada notes: "Drones create an opportunity to tell a story in a better way for less money, but it's also much safer."