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Environment

Should Citizens Be Allowed to Protest Pipelines? There's a Major Fight in the Courts Brewing

Citizen-led climate action is going on trial.

Anti-pipeline climate activists.
Photo Credit: www.shutitdown.today

Citizen climate action was tough enough before Trump became president, as the long struggle and violent crackdown at Standing Rock has demonstrated. It escalated for many months before the Obama administration finally decided in December to deny permits to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline and restart environmental review. But with Donald Trump in the White House, and Republican lawmakers in statehouses introducing new laws to criminalize and toughen penalties for engaging in climate action, direct action is more embattled than ever before.

It’s also more vital than ever before, since the hour is late, and we clearly won’t get climate action from the Trump administration. Catastrophic climate disruption is already affecting the most vulnerable communities, which are mostly indigenous, poor and/or people of color. Yet one of Trump’s first official acts was to issue presidential memoranda and executive orders reversing Obama and advancing the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, despite the massive protests against them.

The good news is, citizen climate action is on the rise. In the wake of Standing Rock, the protest movement against pipelines and other fossil fuel expansion has grown quickly.  Across the U.S., protests have sprung up against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in West Texas, the Diamond Pipeline in Memphis, the Sabal Trail Pipeline in Florida, and others.  When Trump issued his executive actions to ram through the DAPL and Keystone on Tuesday, protesters responded incredibly fast, mounting a rally of thousands of people in Manhattan and many hundreds more in other cities within just a few hours.

But at the same time, the level of crackdown against pipeline protesters is unprecedented. Many hundreds of protesters have been arrested and face draconian felony charges, even including journalists and documentary filmmakers trying to cover them.  

That lends historic importance to our cases. I was one of five #ShutItDown “valve turners” who in October 2016 closed oil sands pipeline emergency valves in solidarity with Standing Rock protestors. Our upcoming trials will be landmark test cases for direct action and the climate justice movement at a time when they’re more important and more vulnerable than ever. The trials will deliberate the legality of direct climate action, even as the government crackdown against it intensifies.  

Activist Ken Ward will be the first #ShutItDown valve turner to go on trial, starting Monday, January 30 outside Seattle. For peacefully closing an emergency valve on the TransMountain pipeline in Skagit County, Washington on October 11, Ward is charged with a raft of felonies including burglary, criminal trespass, and sabotage. Ward’s action was coordinated with other activists who simultaneously turned off emergency valves on oil sands pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana, temporarily stopping the flow of carbon-intensive oil sands from Canada to the U.S. We each face severe felony charges with potential sentences of decades in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. 

All of us are pleading not guilty and arguing that the climate emergency justifies non-violent direct action, since all other reasonable legal avenues to counter acute climate threats were tried for decades, to no avail. There is overwhelming evidence that we can’t keep global warming below catastrophic levels without an immediate end to oil sands and coal use, and banning new fossil fuel extraction. We conducted our actions responsibly and openly, calling the pipeline companies in advance to ensure safety, and livestreaming our actions on Facebook.  

Under such circumstances, we believe our actions were warranted, that we did the right thing, and in conscience could not have done otherwise. But our goal isn’t to get the charges dropped; it’s to make the case before a jury for expanding the legal grounds for direct peaceful climate action, and to defend all Americans' right to engage in it. 

We understand that the consequence for doing that may be jail time—potentially many years of jail time. But our political system is utterly unresponsive to the grave threat to our existence which climate change represents, so it is up to us to stop the fossil fuel industry from continuing to conduct business as usual. When I weigh the possibility of my having to do significant prison time against the possibility that my actions may keep all of our children and grandchildren from living through the collapse of civilization due to catastrophic climate change, it’s no contest. My conscience demands I put my body on the line to try to salvage a habitable planet for future generations.

All #ShutItDown defendants are willing to do likewise to change a system heading for cataclysm, and to blaze a wider trail for direct citizen climate action to confront it. In a statement at his arraignment, Ken Ward said, “My actions of walking across a field, cutting a fence chain and turning a valve are inconsequential compared to the ghastly effect of continuing to burn tar sands oil. I do not agree… that it is reasonable to dust off antique laws designed to suppress labor union organizing and use them to shield the very industries that are driving us toward climate cataclysm.... I look forward to putting these serious questions before a jury.”

Follow the progress of Ward’s trial in real time on January 30, along with subsequent developments.

Editor's note: Annette Klapstein is one of the #ShutItDown "valve-turners." She and fellow valve-turner Emily Johnston closed the emergency valve on the Enbridge line in Leonard, Minnesota. She faces felony charges of criminal damage and criminal trespass, and aiding and abetting both. The charges carry up to 22 years in jail and fines of up to $46,000.

Annette Klapstein is a retired attorney and climate activist.

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