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How Five Climate Activists Shut Off the Equivalent of 15 Percent of US Oil

Recently acquitted climate activist Emily Johnston discusses the need for direct action to fight Big Oil.

Emissions from an oil refinery are reflected in a street puddle at dusk in Texas.

Two years ago, 51-year-old poet Emily Johnston took a large pair of bolt cutters to a length of chain locked around the manual shut-off valve at an Enbridge, Inc. pipeline facility in Clearwater County, Minnesota. As part of a coordinated action on October 11, 2016, with activists in three other states — all of whom would shortly be known as “the Valve Turners” — Johnston intended to stop the flow of oil from Canada’s tar sands into the United States.

Activist and retired attorney Annette Klapstein joined Johnston in the action in Clearwater, and before Johnston snapped the cutters through the chain, their collaborator Benjamin Joldersma called Enbridge as a safety precaution to inform the corporation of their intention to close the pipeline minutes later. Once the chain was removed, Johnston took the yellow-orange shutoff valve into her hands. With Klapstein looking on and Joldersma filming, she turned the wheel.

They engaged in their action after several activists in Canadamost of them Indigenousdid the same thing. They chose the timing in order to honor the request for “days of action and prayer” from Standing Rock. And since then, pipeline fighters’ use of creative tactics has only grown.

Actions by First Nations organizers played a major role this year in halting the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline. Around the same time, activists protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline crouched under tarps in tree platforms in the proposed pipelines’ path along West Virginia’s border. Just last Friday, water protectors opposed to Energy Transfer Partner’s Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana locked themselves to the front gates of the CEO’s mansion in Dallas.

Like the rest of the Valve Turners, Johnston — who is also the co-founder of the environmental group 350 Seattle — was arrested in Clearwater. She requested a trial by jury. Last week, she finally got one; or rather, she would have, if Minnesota Judge Robert Tiffany had not dismissed all charges brought against her, Klapstein and Joldersma on the second day of litigation.

According to Lauren Regan, lead attorney on the case and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the judgment was highly unusual, following what she described in a phone interview with Truthout as a “perfunctory” motion for acquittal. “In my 20 years of doing activist defense, I’ve never had a judge grant one,” she said.

But then, the proceedings had already been unusual. Unlike judges presiding over Valve Turner cases in Montana, North Dakota and Washington, Judge Tiffany had allowed the activists to argue their case on the grounds of what’s known as the “necessity defense.”

“The textbook example of a necessity case is you have a choice between life or death,” said Regan. “And that state of emergency or peril justifies you breaking the law.” For example, someone who breaks into a burning building in order to save somebody locked inside might invoke the necessity defense if charged afterward with trespassing. “It reflects the urgency with which activists view their causes,” said Regan.

According to the Valve Turners, halting the extraction and burning of tar sands couldn’t be more urgent. In a study published just six months before the direct action, scientists found the Alberta tar sands operation to be “one of the most prolific sources of air pollution in North America,” often exceeding the daily emissions of the entire greater Toronto-metro area. Tar sands are also among the very dirtiest of the fossil fuels, producing roughly 14 percent more greenhouse gasses than the average oil used in the US. Processing all of the available Alberta tar sands alone would result in a global temperature rise of an estimated additional 0.4 degrees Celsius, nearly half of the anthropogenic warming seen to date. According to the hundreds of independent scientists who compiled the 2014 National Climate Assessment, “children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor” are among the most vulnerable to climate changerelated negative impacts, which “will increase substantially unless global emissions are greatly reduced.” In the light of these findings, the Valve Turners’ actions can be understood as an attempt to rescue these vulnerable populations from the “burning building” of our planet’s ever-hotter climate.

The attorneys on Johnston’s case had prepared evidence to this effect, largely in the form of expert testimony from scientists like James Hansen, former petroleum industry experts like Anthony Ingraffea, and authorities on political science like Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law. However, according to Kelsey Skaggs, executive director for the Climate Defense Project who also served as a trial attorney on the case, the judge’s early dismissal meant that they were not given the opportunity to present this defense. In a phone interview with Truthout, Skaggs admitted that although “an acquittal is certainly a legal victory,” the more promising outcome, to her mind, was the precedent this case set in terms of the recent anti-protest laws that have swept state legislatures across the country. “What we saw in court was the law wasn’t a good fit for the nonviolent direct action that our clients actually did. It suggests that prosecutors using these laws may be overreaching.”

However powerful this precedent, the early acquittal was also a loss in some ways. The Valve Turners and expert witnesses had been prepared to speak directly to a jury composed of Minnesota residents from “mostly rural communities,” said Regan. “A lot of [them] earn their incomes from pipelines or pipeline-affiliated work. To be able to sit in a room with 12 or 13 of them for a couple of days and actually build some trust is a really powerful way to reach across the aisles and engage in dialogue with people who ‘aren’t with the choir,’ so to speak.”

Truthout caught up with Valve Turner Emily Johnston to talk about the case and the necessity of direct action in this moment of climate crisis.

Truthout: You came to activism from poetry and creative writing. What brought you from all that to founding 350 Seattle?

Emily Johnston: Well, I was briefly an activist in my twenties. I took a job with the National Organization for Women. And I realized after being there for about a year and a half, and another year on the board, that it was never going to feel more important to go home and work on a story. All the work we did—we helped defeat Bork, helped organize one of the first gay rights marches in DC—was important to peoples’ lives in a really direct way that fiction was never going to be. But I wasn’t prepared to give up my idea of life as a writer, and I did think it was important in a different way. So, I stepped back for what I thought would be a year or two, and then I stayed away for a really long time.

Like most Americans—maybe most people, even—I felt like it was OK to just sort of live my life, as long as I worked hard, and was kind to people, and tried to live sustainably and so forth.

Was there a moment when that way of thinking shifted for you?

Yes! It was reading Jim Hansen’s writing about the Keystone XL Pipeline, and how the development of the tar sands was game-over for the climate. I had been worried about climate change profoundly for decades, and that was the moment when I realized: no, it’s actually not OK for you to sit this one out. You can’t expect other people to fight for this. You can’t expect the scientists and politicians to get together and make sane policy. It’s not happening, and it hasn’t been happening for decades.

However uncertain I am about what I have to offer, I have to offer it. Period.

Tell me about the action itself two years ago. Was there anything surprising about being there?

You know, at that point I’d been worrying about it for months. Losing sleep. Considering it and reconsidering it. So, I’d say the only thing striking, in the end, was how easy it was to do. It was physically simple and straightforward. There’s definitely a visceral power in that, in the ability to have such an immediate, direct impact on a kind of business-as-usual that normally seems overwhelming and distant. I mean, we found out the next day that we had instigated the shut off the equivalent of 15 percent of US daily oil use. That was stunning. There were only five of us!

So yes, I lost a lot of sleep in the months leading up to the action, but as we drove there and got out of the car, I felt very resolved. I knew that we were risking years in prison, and I certainly didn’t relish that thought!

But when you put your mind to doing something like that, and you move past all the psychological hurdles, you come to the realization that if we don’t do things like this, we are likely headed toward extinction. That’s the thing. Once you metabolize that—how little time we have—there’s a way in which that provides a moral clarity that can stand in the place of bravery.

Because it’s not about being brave, actually. I didn’t want to go to jail! I was afraid of the consequences of my actions. But moral clarity led me to feel that it was necessary.

Let’s talk about your recent acquittal. Did you expect Judge Tiffany to dismiss the case?

Not in the way he did. I didn’t realize there would be a moment after the prosecution rested when he could acquit us. But I’d already figured that the last thing the judge wanted was for that trial to happen with the comprehensive necessity defense, and the expert witnesses. Those people are so articulate and authoritative. It would have been devastating to [Enbridge’s] future if that trial had gone forward.

So, what does the work look like for you now?

Well, the thing I got up at 4:30 this morning to work on was the Housing Forum that we’re doing next Saturday [October 27]. Because housing is not only a justice issue, it’s a climate issue. Places like Seattle that are more climate-stable are going to need to house people as other places become less stable. We’re already seeing a lot of migrants from Central America, many of whom were driven here, in part, because of the drought.

We just can’t overemphasize the urgency. We had the IPCC telling us that again last week. The window that we have left to make an impact is so small. It may be days, weeks, months. We know it’s not multiple years. Any changes that we make now, anything we do to inspire other places to make significant changes—that is what we have to do.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Correction: The third paragraph was amended to acknowledge that the Valve Turners’ action was preceded — and modeled upon — similar actions in Canada led by mostly Indigenous activists.