By Jessica Corbett
Michael Foster, the valve turner who temporarily halted the flow of tar sands oil in TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in October 2016, called for future actions to address the global climate crisis before he headed to prison, where he is expected to serve at least a year of his three-year sentence.
"It doesn't matter if I'm sitting in jail. What matters is stopping the pollution," Foster, a 53-year-old mental health counselor from Seattle, declared after his sentencing in North Dakota on Tuesday.
"If other people don't take action, mine makes no difference," he continued. "And if they don't, the planet comes apart at the seams. The only way what I did matters is if people are stopping the poison."
Climate activist Michael Foster, photographed Tuesday outside a North Dakota courthouse with his partner Sue Lenander, was sentenced to serve at least a year in prison for temporarily shutting down the Keystone pipeline in October 2016. Climate Direct Action /Facebook
Although others who participated in the multi-state #ShutItDown action two years ago have been allowed to present a "necessity defense"—or argue they believed their act was "necessary to avoid or minimize a harm" that was "greater than the harm resulting from the violation of the law"—Judge Laurie A. Fontaine rejected such a defense for Foster and Sam Jessup, who filmed Foster's action and received a two-year deferred prison sentence with supervised probation.
Outside the court, Dr. James Hansen—who has been called "the father of modern climate change awareness" and was barred from testifying during the trial last year—said the public is generally unaware of the need to urgently address the climate crisis, emphasizing that we are entering "the age of consequences" for burning fossil fuels. "Michael Foster isn't a criminal," Hansen added, "he's a hero."
The decision to sentence Foster to prison time was decried by other climate activists, including fellow valve turner Emily Johnston, who pointed out the lack of legal consequences for environmental degradation caused by the fossil fuel industry:
No word on when Transcanada & the others will be tried for crimes against humanity. But they will be—the only quest… https://t.co/fAlQuKgNOE— Emily Johnston (@Emily Johnston)1517940696.0
Michael Foster sentenced to 3 yrs in prison, 2 deferred, for shutting down Keystone pipeline, which carries some of… https://t.co/5UO71XNWgK— 350 Tacoma (@350 Tacoma)1517942731.0
"TransCanada and the State of North Dakota had both pushed for a harsh sentence to deter other climate activists (the prosecution recommended five years)," according to a statement released Tuesday by Climate Direct Action, which launched the #ShutItDown action. Foster faced a maximum penalty of 21 years in prison, but is expected to only serve one year and then to be released on probation.
"I made a decision to commit civil disobedience to defend my family tree and yours, knowing that there is no government, no politician, no corporation on planet right now putting forward a plan to defend life as we know it," Foster also said Tuesday. "My kids and yours won't survive this mess if we don't clean up all this."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
- Widely-Opposed Pipeline 'Confirms Worst Fears' After Two Spills ... ›
- The Energy East Pipeline Is Dead, but Three Tar Sands Pipeline ... ›
By Jessica Corbett
In a decision that is being called "groundbreaking" and "precedent-setting," a district court judge in Minnesota has ruled that he will allow oil pipeline protesters to present a "necessity defense" for charges related to a multi-state action by climate activists last October.
In his decision last week, Judge Robert Tiffany ruled that four activists who participated in the #ShutItDown action—in which pipelines across five states were temporarily disabled, halting the flow of tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S.—may present scientists and other expert witnesses to explain the immediate threat of climate change to justify their action.
"The ruling is only the third time a judge in the United States has allowed for such a defense in a climate case," InsideClimateNews reported. "The first case, in Massachusetts in 2014, did not go to trial after the prosecutor dropped the charges. A judge allowed the necessity defense in a Washington State case in 2016 but then instructed jurors they could not acquit on necessity."
This is the third "valve turner" case to go to court, but the first time a necessity defense has been allowed for this group of activists. Earlier this year, valve turner Ken Ward was convicted of one felony in Washington state.
In North Dakota earlier this month, valve turner Michael Foster was convicted of two felonies and a misdemeanor, while Sam Jessup, who livestreamed Foster's protest, was convicted of one felony and one misdemeanor. Climate experts including Dr. James Hansen—"the father of modern climate change awareness"—traveled to North Dakota to appear in court but were barred from testifying.
This latest case in Minnesota involves valve turners Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein as well as videographer Steve Liptay and support person Ben Joldersma, who will be tried separately but are also allowed to present a necessity defense.
"What we did is not in dispute," said Klapstein. "The only question before the jury will be whether our action was necessary to prevent imminent climate catastrophe. Now we'll be able to present evidence connecting the devastation we're seeing—from hurricanes in the Caribbean to wildfires throughout western North America—to an oil-soaked political system utterly failing to respond."
"Finally, we'll get to bring climate experts into a court of law, to describe the distance between our current reality and what physics demands of us if we hope to leave a stable planet for our kids," said Johnston. "Doing so means there's an outside chance we can bridge that distance—and we need every chance we can get."
Hansen—who told Common Dreams that he believes jurors would have found Foster and Jessup innocent if a necessity defense were allowed in that case—is expected to testify in support of the Minnesota defendants.
"The whole planet will be inside a single courtroom the day this trial begins," said climate activist Bill McKibben, another potential expert witness. "It's a rare chance to explain precisely why we need to act, and act now."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Last week, a Skagit County, Washington jury failed to reach a verdict in my trial on charges of burglary and sabotage for closing the TransMountain pipeline as part of the ShutItDown climate direct action, which disrupted all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the U.S. last October.
This Man Faces 30 Years in Prison for Shutting Down a Pipeline https://t.co/1xyOlzK6NT— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1486054589.0
The trial itself was very short, barely two days long, because there was no disagreement on the facts of the case, because my proposed necessity defense was not allowed by order of the presiding judge (so our expert witnesses on climate science and energy policy did not take the stand) and because my own testimony was sharply limited in scope.
On the stand, I told the jury my own story, about working for decades on the staff of public interest and environmental organizations where we treated climate change as merely one among many policy issues and about the rude awakening I received after reading two seminal papers, Bill Hare's, 1997 Greenpeace International report The Carbon Logic and Dr. James Hansen's 2005 A Slippery Slope.
In my testimony and with a handful of charts and graphs, I aimed to show:
1. How quickly climate change is occurring and how far out of whack Earth systems are from historical norms ...
2. The potentially catastrophic impact of sea level rise on Skagit County ...
3. The culpable role of tar sands oil in contributing to disaster ...
4. The scale of change necessary to stave off the worse case, and ...
5. The powerful, effective and unique role that nonviolent climate direct action can play in forcing change in a deadlocked society.
I was not allowed to get all of that into the record, but in the end, the jury had these four pieces of tangible evidence to review in their deliberations.
Video of the Action. The prosecution chose to show the jury a short video of highlights of the action that we had prepared, drawing from my own live-streaming and video shot by independent documentarians, Lindsey Grayzell and Carl Davis.
Screen shot of video shown to Skagit County jury by the prosecution, prepared by the defense.
Historical CO2 level chart. There are, of course, a staggering number of data sets and charts to choose from in illustrating the climate problem. After much consideration, we choose to go with NASA's CO2 level chart combining 400,000+ years of ice core data and modern air samples, because it is unimpeachable and intuitive evidence of serious change in global conditions.
Historical Atmospheric CO2 Level chart, taken from NASA website shown to Skagit County jury.
Sea level rise in Skagit County map. I testified about the Eric Rignot, et. al. report concluding that the West Antarctic Ice Shelve is in "unstoppable" collapse and Khazendar, Rignot, et. al. on disintegration of buttressing ice shelves, but we wanted a way to make the threat understandable, so I prepared a chart using Climate Central's Surging Sea mapping tool, showing the impact of 5' possible sea level rise on Skagit County.
The 5' estimate came from former State Department Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing's report to the Marrakesh Climate Change Conference, as reported by Daphne Wysham. Though much more conservative that former senior adviser to
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Margaret Davidson's report to the RIMS conference last year, of 9' sea level rise, we thought that the international setting and Pershing's higher rank would carry more weight with the jury.
Projected 5' sea level rise impact on Skagit County map show to the Skagit County jury.
Tar sands oil emissions graph. In arguing why this particular action was appropriate, we presented a Carnegie Institute Oil-Climate Index chart showing that Canadian tar sands oils have 40 percent higher lifecycle carbon emissions than the lowest North American oils. Unfortunately, I was not able to present conclusions of the Oil Change International report, The Sky's the Limit, showing that to have even a 50/50 chance of reaching the 1.5C limit on temperature increase, the world needs to halt all new fossil fuel exploration and reduce some current extractions.
Carnegie Institute Oil-Climate Index chart shown to the Skagit County Jury.
For some time, I have argued that emphasizing the complexity of climate science does us no service in a public debate where our opponents ridicule and warp scientific approaches and where even climate activists are befuddled by the complexity of the problem. In my defense, truncated as it was, I was able to present the barest minimum of information outlining and supporting the simplest and direst aspect of the climate emergency: catastrophic sea level rise and why my action can be considered appropriate in the circumstances.
For some number of the Skagit County jury, this limited data set on climate change impacts proved more persuasive that the graphic depiction of my actions. At the next trial, if the prosecution chooses to retry, we may expect that at least these exhibits will be introduced again.
Activists successfully shut down five pipelines today across the U.S. that deliver tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. The pipelines targeted were Enbridge line 4 and 67 in Leonard, Minnesota; TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in Walhalla, North Dakota; Spectra Energy's Express pipeline at Coal Banks Landing, Montana; and Kinder-Morgan's Trans-Mountain pipeline in Anacortes, Washington. "We did this in response to Standing Rock's call to action for escalated actions," a spokesperson for #ShutItDown told EcoWatch.
In an online statement by #ShutItDown, the group said:
"This morning, by 7:30 PST, 5 activists have successfully shut down 5 pipelines across the United States delivering tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada in support of the call for International Days of Prayer and Action for Standing Rock. Activists employed manual safety valves, calling on President Obama to use emergency powers to keep the pipelines closed and mobilize for the extraordinary shift away from fossil fuels now required to avert catastrophe."
Since then, EcoWatch has learned that police have approached two sites so far and two women have been arrested in Minnesota. The two are Emily Johnston, 50, and retired attorney Annette Klapstein, 64.
"For years we've tried the legal, incremental, reasonable methods, and they haven't been enough; without a radical shift in our relationship to Earth, all that we love will disappear," Johnston said. "My fear of that possibility is far greater than my fear of jail. My love for the beauties of this world is far greater than my love of an easy life."
Only one activist is at each site, accompanied by a support person and video crew. The groups have been posting and live-streaming on Facebook. In Montana, Leonard Higgins, 64, shut the valve on a pipeline that carries oil south from Canada.
"We're in a state of emergency to protect our loved ones and our families, our communities," Higgins said as he was filmed at the pipeline.
"Today's action is a bold step forward for a movement that refuses to back down from challenge of the climate crisis," Tim DeChristopher wrote in an email to EcoWatch. DeChristopher spent 21 months in a federal prison for posing as a fake bidder at a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in December of 2008. He has since founded the Climate Disobedience Center and is attending Harvard Divinity School.
Breaking: ALL tar sands pipelines crossing Canada/US border now shut down in solidarity w/ #NoDAPL https://t.co/cYMsNV4awe #shutitdown— Tim DeChristopher (@Tim DeChristopher)1476197119.0
"While our political leadership fails to take climate change seriously, activists are stepping up," DeChristopher added. "The climate crisis continues to intensify, and so does our movement."
Police were also onsite with Ken Ward, 59, one of the founders of the Climate Disobedience Center and #ShutItDown, and have arrested him in Washington at the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. Each protestor plans to stay until they are removed, the organization told us.
Watch arrest of @wardken, one of activists shutting down 5 Tar Sands pipelines today. #ShutItDown. Full video at… https://t.co/yTcQOtoVK6— Climate Social (@Climate Social)1476200468.0
"Like mothers everywhere, I act from a deep love that extends to all children and young people, and all living beings on this planet," Klapstein said. "I have signed hundreds of petitions, testified at dozens of hearings, met with most of my political representatives at every level, to very little avail. I have come to believe that our current economic and political system is a death sentence to life on earth, and that I must do everything in my power to replace these systems with cooperative, just, equitable and love-centered ways of living together. This is my act of love."
UPDATE: EcoWatch has learned that all five activists and four support crew have now been arrested.