Today climate activists in the U.S. celebrate a crucial victory. Yesterday the Washington Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for review in environmental activist Ken Ward’s case and set a Washington State precedent recognizing the necessity defense for direct action for the sake of preventing catastrophic climate change.
“This victory upholds the right of a defendant to assert the necessity defense to the charges brought by the State and also strengthens the essential role that a jury of community members will play in determining whether the accused should be found guilty or not,” said Lauren Regan, attorney for Ken Ward and Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
In April 2019 Ward’s conviction for burglary was reversed and remanded as a result of a Washington State Appellate Court ruling in which Ward was granted the trial because the previous trial judge had violated Ward’s Sixth Amendment rights by refusing to allow him to present evidence of the necessity of his actions to a jury of his peers. This evidence included expert testimony from climate scientists and civil disobedience experts.
Regan and Ralph Hurvitz of Seattle represented Ken Ward at trial, with appellate assistance
from the Climate Defense Project.
Ward’s criminal charges stemmed from his actions on the morning on October 11, 2016. Ward
shut off the Trans Mountain pipeline’s safety valve at a Kinder Morgan pipeline facility near
Anacortes, Washington. The pipeline delivers crude oil from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to be
refined in Washington. This bold action was coordinated with fellow “valve turner” activists to
halt the flow of tar sands oil through all pipelines crossing into the U.S. from Canada. In doing
so they temporarily decreased the amount of tar sands oil and subsequent carbon emissions,
and brought critical attention to the dangers of tar sands and the fossil fuel industry’s role in
creating the global climate crisis.
The Minnesota “valve turners,” Annette Klapstein, Emily Johnston, and Ben Joldersma also
created important precedent after the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed their right to use the
climate necessity defense as well. At trial in October 2018, they were acquitted of multiple
felonies by the judge despite corporate interests’ efforts to use “critical infrastructure” laws to
criminalize nonviolent civil disobedience targeting fossil fuel pipelines. Leonard Higgins, the
Montana valve turner, is awaiting a ruling on his appeal also based upon the trial judge’s denial
of his climate necessity defense.
“The valve turner actions, and the subsequent legal battles led by the CLDC, have expanded the law regarding the necessity defense and will be important tools for activists for many years to come. With catastrophic climate change looming, it is time for the people to be able to decide who the real criminals are: the greedy corporate profiteers poisoning the water and destroying the planet or the regular people who are willing to stand up to defend our communities. The necessity defense places that power in the hands of jurors, where it belongs,” Regan said.
As the Trump administration continues to reject science and roll back environmental regulations as a gift to the corrupt corporate interests he represents, the Amazon is burning; sea ice is melting at an exponential rate; and we are on the precipice of irreversible destruction of the planet. Veteran activists like Ken Ward and the “valve turners” are committing acts of civil disobedience and risking arrest in hopes of reversing the current climate emergency. At the same time a new generation of global climate strike activists has taken center stage. The time to act is now, and the necessity of the valve turners’ actions is clearer than ever.
The CLDC has led the defense of the other valve turners in Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota, in coordination with invaluable local counsel from each state, and is committed to expanding the application of the necessity defense throughout the country.