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Why Pipeline Activists on Trial Say, 'We Had to Do It'

A development in two climate activists' trial could set a new precedent for cases of climate change-related civil disobedience.

November 21, 2017

Last year, five activists from the Pacific Northwest shut off pipelines bringing oil into the US from Canada. All five were arrested and charged with various felonies and misdemeanors. Now, a development in one of their trials could set a new precedent for cases in which climate change activists have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

What happened that day in October of 2016?

Five activists from Washington and Oregon stationed themselves at five different pipelines along the US-Canada border, including TransMountain, which brings oil into Washington and the Keystone XL pipeline into North Dakota.

Then, they used bolt cutters to get past security fencing; they called the companies that own the pipelines and told them what they were about to do; and then they simultaneously shut off all five pipelines leading into the US from Alberta’s Tar Sands.

And then they sat around and waited for law enforcement to show up and arrest them.

Why were they shutting off oil pipelines?

They’re trying a new tactic, a new legal strategy, to try to avert what they think might be catastrophic climate change.

All five of them are long-time climate change activists, and they say everything they’ve tried, including traditional protests and pushes for legislation, is not working nearly fast enough to avert what they predict will be a climate disaster. So they decided to try something more drastic.

Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, the two defendants who shut off pipelines that cross the border in Minnesota, are both from the Seattle area.

Related: ‘Valve Turner’ From Oregon Faces Trial in Washington for Pipeline Protest

Johnston says she shut off the pipeline because she’s “just much more afraid of climate change than of jail.” She adds, “Actions like ours pose a real threat to the system (because) when people see other people of conscience willing to take those risks, I think a lot of people start thinking about, ‘You know, what can I do?’”

Encouraging others to take similar risks is exactly what Johnston and her fellow activists were going for, and that’s the heart of their legal strategy.

Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein are climate activists who shut off Enbridge-owned oil pipelines in Minnesota in October 2016. Credit: Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

So there are trials going on in different states. Why is the one in Minnesota the one you’re focusing on?

The case in Minnesota is the only one in which the judge has allowed this novel defense that the defendants want to use. It’s called the “necessity defense.”

The “necessity defense” means that the defendants admit that they did something illegal, but they say that illegal action was necessary in order to prevent an even greater harm. In this case, the greater harm would be climate change along with the rising seas, more unpredictable and extreme weather, and other things climate change is bringing.

They say they’ve tried all legal routes to prevent that greater harm and so they’re left with illegal actions, such as breaking into someone else’s private property and taking the potentially risky action of shutting off an oil pipeline, to try to prevent climate change.

Why does it matter if they can use this defense or not?

If Johnston and Klapstein successfully argue that illegally shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure is necessary in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, that’s a legal precedent other activists could use if they were to do similar acts of civil disobedience.

So what happens next?

The prosecutors have appealed the use of the necessity defense, and that appeal has to run its course, so now the trial is unlikely to take place before February or March 2018.

And, in terms of Johnston and Klapstein’s fellow activists who were arrested in other states, one has been let free; one is awaiting sentencing; and one trial starts this Tuesday, November 21.


The five climate activists arrested after shutting down Canada-to-U.S. pipelines pose for a photo. They were identified by Climate Direct Action as (left to right): Emily Johnson, Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, Ken Ward, and Michael Foster.