Blockadia on Trial: What the Jury Did Not Hear About My Keystone XL Protest
On Earth Day, April 22, 2013, I disrupted construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL Pipeline) and was arrested and charged with several offenses in Atoka County, Oklahoma. 18 months later I finally had my day in court before a jury of my peers on October 23, 2014. Although I was the only person who locked down the day I took action, I was, and remain, part of a team. I am not unique. Many have preceded me risking their safety and freedom fighting for our children's future and I'm confident far more will follow.
Going into the trial we knew we had only about a 30 percent chance that the judge would allow us to mount our defense. As Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said, "you will fail to make 100 percent of the goals you don't attempt." The chance to have a jury of my peers find me not guilty, setting a powerful precedent across the country, was absolutely worth all the perils associated with a criminal trial in a conservative Oklahoma county.
Judge Preston Harbuck had the reputation of being a prosecutor in robes. His hostility to our defense was evident from the outset and because of him the jury heard very, very little of what we had painstakingly prepared for them to hear. This is sad for a number of reasons ranging far beyond my guilt or innocence. So I will use this space to share what the jury would have heard had justice been served in that Atoka, Oklahoma courtroom.
Citizens of the Jury:
I stand before you a 62-year-old father of two daughters. Becoming a father 33 years ago proved to be a profound transformation. For the first time in my life, I became an ancestor, taking my place in the river of time we call history. All of us alive today have an unbroken line of ancestors going back to the first humans who ever walked the earth. While I know only a small fraction of them, the ones I do know all did their best to leave the world in as good or better shape than it was when they enjoyed it. Many of my ancestors, like yours, risked their lives in major conflicts and fought for rights and liberties bequeathed to us with only one obligation: that we do the same, in turn, for our descendants. The debt we owe them we pay forward by protecting the future of our descendants, by looking out for our children.
This sacred and fundamental obligation defines a core responsibility that does not permit robbing resources from our children's future. And yet this is precisely what's happening. We are consuming resources, as much our children's birthright as ours, with scant consideration for the devastation this will visit on our children. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the "Commons" of our only atmosphere.
Scientists speak with commanding consensus and the body of knowledge, climate science, is at once sound, solid and most importantly, settled science. We can rely on it. We must act on it. Our children's future requires nothing less. As Winston Churchill once declared, "It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required." The science is clear and calls on us to do what is required. Action is required and I took action that Earth Day in 2013.
The most compelling evidence driving me to act was Dr. James Hansen's rock-solid conviction, based on veritable mountains of evidence that if the KXL Pipeline was built it would be "game over" for climate. Dr. Hansen is one of the foremost climate scientists on earth and I'm honored that he prepared testimony to share with you today.
Citizens of the Jury, I hope you will be given the time to read Dr. Hansen's testimonyprior to your deliberations. Let me draw your attention to his conclusion:
To allow further exploitation of Canada's tar sands is akin to giving up, willfully ignoring the well-being of young people, future generations, and other life on Earth. It is absolutely necessary that we reverse our present course without delay in order to preserve a viable climate system for our children and their progeny.
Beyond the compelling scientific evidence the KXL Pipeline poses a colossal threat to our children's future, I was also moved to act because I knew that every claim TransCanada, the builders of the KXL Pipeline made, was a lie. They lied about job creation: instead of tens thousands of jobs created, even the State Department admitted that there would be only about 50 permanent jobs generated and only about 3500 temporary construction jobs. Although they claimed that tar sands oil was intended for domestic U.S. markets, they would not make that claim under oath before Congress because the markets they seek are international ones. They lied about pipeline safety, dramatically understating the threat of pipeline ruptures. Hundreds of safety violations that plagued construction of the Southern leg of the KXL, inspired even the industry-friendly Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to impose new regulations on any northern leg construction should Obama approve it.
Looking beyond these facts that clearly establish that building the KXL Pipeline constitutes a violent assault on our children's future, there is a bigger picture all citizens, parents in particular, must consider.
Bill McKibben's article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," submitted as evidence for your consideration, makes it clear how big the problem is. Although the figures have changed since the article was written in 2012, the situation described has only gotten worse. Drawing on information from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, McKibben noted that we can afford to only burn another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide before almost certainly triggering tipping points beyond which we can only expect civilization shattering runaway global warming. The fossil fuel industry, however, is determined to ignite 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide for profit, nearly five times the safe limit.
Courting the extinction of human beings and much of life on earth for short term gain is a criminal enterprise of staggering and historic proportions. Resisting this attack on our children and their future shouldn't fall to a handful of activists. In fact, a major reason I took action was to share these profound warnings, raise awareness, and help swell the numbers of those prepared to "do what is required."
As I'm sure you can appreciate, citizens of the jury, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful on earth. Using only a fraction of its vast wealth, this industry now effectively controls most governments at the federal, state and local level. Here in Oklahoma, Senator Inhofe received over $1.5 million from the industry and is one of their leading champions. He dismisses the honest work of thousands of scientists across the planet claiming instead that they're engaged in the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated" on the American public. Oklahoma's other Senator and Atoka's member of congress have also received substantial sums from the industry and, not surprisingly, share Inhofe's view.
In fact, members of the jury, this industry isn't content to only dominate all the organs of governance, they have created a veritable climate denial industry that has polluted our nation's media with their falsehoods and confused enough of our fellow citizens to forestall anything like the unity we must have to make the bold changes in our economy and culture that the climate crisis calls for. During voir dire [interviewing the jury], I couldn't help but note how many of your harbored uncertainties about the overwhelming scientific consensus I felt compelled to act upon. Please consider this proof positive for the claims of industry influence just shared with you.
More evidence for the industry's tremendous influence nationally is the fact that during the last presidential contest, neither candidate was ever asked any questions about or volunteered any discussion of the clear, present, and mounting danger posed by the climate crisis
While President Obama has, of late, spoken strongly about the need to address Climate Change it is hard to take him seriously on this score. Revelations from Edward Snowden's NSA leaks reveal that, under Obama, NSA assets were deployed at the 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen, not to help the world arrive at a historic agreement to reduce carbon emissions. On the contrary, they were used to ensure that U.S. corporate interests wouldn't suffer from any outcomes. It's hard not to agree with one commentator who regarded it as epic treachery.
So with the media silenced into sheepishness, the government's response ranging between outright complicity and "epic treachery," and the general population largely ignorant about the truth regarding the KXL Pipeline, nor the mounting threat of global warming, I felt compelled to take direct action. I felt compelled to bolt my body to a piece of heavy equipment on Earth Day and tell the world that this threat to our children's future must be stopped.
I imagine some of you jurors might find yourselves becoming persuaded that the threat is serious but are concerned by the prosecutors claim that I broke the law and must be punished. I ask you to consider the case where someone breaks into a car to save the life of an unattended child overheating in a car. This isn't hypothetical. On July 15 in Katy, Texas this happened. Two children were overheating on a sweltering day in a locked car. Several people on the scene didn't hesitate to break windows to free the children. No charges were sought or pressed and video taken of the event shows that considerable force was used taking out several windows so the children could be freed.
In the unlikely event that charges had been brought, defendants could have easily claimed what is known as a "necessity defense." Under a necessity defense if someone commits a lesser crime to stop a greater one, they are innocent under the law. So whatever crimes might've occurred freeing the children were far smaller than the crime of negligent homicide that could have been pressed had onlookers done nothing and the children perished.
Jurors, I stand here before you as someone who understands that our children are threatened by climate change. I can see clearly that powerful corporations, and their purchased politicians are conspiring to prevent effective action that might save them. Just as I wouldn't hesitate to smash a car window to free an imperiled child, I felt compelled to act.
In Oklahoma a necessity defense requires that the harm be imminent and action required immediately. As for imminence, we need go no further than the most recent National Climate Assessment (NCA) which makes clear that people are already suffering, even dying, in this country and across the world, because of climate changes already under way. Its pages also reveal that human activity is the largest and most significant driver of these changes.
The prosecutor might argue that the worst of climate change impacts are decades away giving me and others concerned plenty of time to respond. Jurors, I would give worlds for that to be true. What drives my sense of urgency, beyond the science, is that I understand the tremendous difficulties associated with this challenge and have some idea how long it will take. My short answer is that it will take far longer than the time needed to punch out a car window.
A major implication of the Carbon Tracker Initiative study mentioned earlier is that in order to have any chance to save a habitable atmosphere for our children, about 80% of the proven reserves claimed by oil rich governments like Saudi Arabia or Russia, not to mention the boards of directors of powerful corporations like Exxon, Shell, BP, and Chevron must be left in the ground! Estimates vary, but we're talking about $10 to $20 trillion worth of assets which "We the People" must compel current owners to abandon. Not only do the vast sums involved guarantee a very big fight will occur.
What I lose sleep over, citizens of the jury, is knowing that the science tells us we don't have decades to work with. We have very little time, far too much of which has been squandered, and I refuse to delay taking bold, decisive action for our children's for even a minute. We do not have a moment to spare.
Returning to the matter at hand, my counsel, Doug Parr, has already demonstrated to you that the prosecution has failed to make its case that I was guilty of obstructing a public official on either count. I will go further. I argue that I wasn't breaking the law that day - I was enforcing it!
In American law there exists the concept of the "Public Trust Doctrine," whereby the state serves as trustee on behalf of present and future generations of U.S. citizens. The government has an obligation to protect public natural resources on which we all depend. In its role as trustee the state has a strictly defined "fiduciary duty" to the citizen beneficiaries. Trustees of public commons, like our atmosphere, have to act solely in the citizens' interest, a duty they must discharge with "the highest duty of care." Nowhere in this doctrine, which has been described as "the slate upon which all constitutions and laws are written," is any trustee allowed to harm their trust no matter if rich and powerful corporations bid them to do so. Instead, they are required to solely promote citizens interests and ensure, according to Dr. Mary Wood, "the sustained resource abundance necessary for a society's endurance."
Let me close by declaring that the fact that TransCanada was permitted to lay pipe in the ground where I chose that day to obstruct their construction efforts is proof that both the state of Oklahoma and the United States government were in dereliction of their obligations under the Public Trust. I was not in dereliction of my duty, my sacred obligation as a parent, and stand before you proudly innocent of the crimes I've been charged with.
[On October 23, 2014, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts of obstructing a public official. Significantly, they imposed no jail time and only an unspecified fine. The prosecutor requested $250 for each of two counts, but Judge Harbuck imposed the maximum fine of $500 per count and imposed an additional $545.50 worth of court costs. What the judge didn't know was that supporters had already raised funds to cover all fines and costs before court began that day. Together with the jury's very light sentencing the whole trial experience felt like a victory.]