On October 11, 2016, five brave climate activists closed valves on the five pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil into the United States from Canada. This direct action shut down 15% of US crude oil imports for nearly a day—a display of the sorts of shifts that are necessary to avoid complete climate collapse. The five valve turners filmed their actions and stand by them, saying that they are not only necessary, but morally and legally justified to avoid the catastrophic harm caused to humanity by unprecedented climactic disruption.
In order to ensure that the pipelines would be safely shut down, a call was placed to each company’s emergency response and control number fifteen minutes before valve turners entered the sites, alerting them of the situation and giving them ample time to shut each pipeline down.
Inspired by their tactics and bravery, CLDC stepped in to provide free legal representation for the Valve Turners, and became lead legal counsel in the cases of Ken Ward (WA), Leonard Higgins (MT), Emily Johnston, and Annette Klapstein (MN). Michael Foster (ND) is represented by other parties. All the Valve Turners were charged with felonies ranging from Sabotage to Burglary to Criminal Mischief.
In September 2019 the Washington Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for review in 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. 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.
The Minnesota Valve Turners, Annette Klapstein, Emily Johnston, and Ben Joldersma 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. As of November 2019, 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 Necessity Defense
All of the Valve Turners have attempted to make the case of the necessity defense for their actions. Traditionally, the necessity defense is used when the crime committed was necessary to prevent a greater harm. To apply this to climate actions is to change the way that mainstream society is currently viewing climate change. Our society is in danger and the legal channels are not creating change, so illegal action must be taken to prevent that harm. The necessity defense was denied in Montana and North Dakota, but was granted in Minnesota, and now in Washington State as well.
How You Can Help