One year after Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein entered a valve site to manually shut down the flow of oil in two Enbridge tar sands pipelines near Leonard, Minnesota, District Court judge Robert Tiffany granted a motion brought by the “Valve Turners” and two supporters to present a necessity defense at trial.
The case is the result of coordinated “Shut It Down” actions to halt the flow of all tar sands pipelines in the country on October 11, 2106. Johnston and Klapstein shutting off the flow of Enbridge Corporation’s pipelines 4 and 67 near Leonard, Minnesota, while fellow activists manually engaged the emergency valves on pipelines in Washington, North Dakota, and Montana. Documentary filmmaker Steve Liptay and support person Ben Joldersma were also arrested in the Minnesota action, and they join Valve Turners Johnston and Klapstein in this landmark effort to present a climate necessity defense.
A climate necessity defense offers a jury a novel scenario: the defendants freely admit to taking the actions for which they have been charged. Instead of seeking to plant doubt in the minds of jurors, the defense provides context for the action, calling expert witnesses to offer testimony about the urgency of the climate crisis, the imminent danger posed by tar sands pipelines, and the historic role of civil disobedience in transforming unjust systems.
Courts in the United States have not yet allowed a complete necessity defense in a climate activist case, but Judge Tiffany’s ruling offers the latest opportunity for activists to use this method of dissent to focus conversation on the failure of government and industry to protect the public and ensure a stable, livable climate system.
Kelsey Skaggs, Executive Director of Climate Defense Project commented, “By recognizing the strength of the defendants’ arguments in favor of direct action, the court acknowledged both the scope of the climate crisis and the people’s right to act when their leaders fail them. This decision will make it easier for other courts to follow suit.” The Climate Defense Project, a public interest lawfirm that supports innovative legal defense strategies for climate dissidents is coordinating expert witnesses for the Valve Turner trials.
In a similar case, tried in Lynnwood, Washington in January 2016, the “Delta 5” defendants were allowed to present expert witnesses at their jury trial. After allowing testimony from five expert witnesses, including a climate scientist and a rail safety expert, Judge Anthony Howard praised the defendants as “tireless advocates whom we need in this society to prevent the kind of catastrophic effects that we see coming and our politicians are ineffectually addressing.” Although he praised the commitment of the Delta 5, Judge Howard cited a hesitation to engage the court in “politics” and instructed the jury to disregard the expert testimony, effectively denying a necessity defense.
Climate Disobedience Center Founder, Tim DeChristopher is heartened by the Minnesota ruling, “This ruling means that a fully informed jury will have the opportunity to come to their own conclusion about whether the severity of the climate crisis and the failure of the government’s response necessitate bold action to defend a livable future.” DeChristopher’s attempt to mount a climate necessity defense in his own climate direct action trial in 2011 was blocked by a federal judge.
Two trials remain in two states following from the 2016 tar sands pipeline valve turning action. Leonard Higgins is scheduled to stand trial in Fort Benton, Montana November 21st for his closure of Spectra Energy’s “Express” pipeline. Trial is scheduled for defendants in Minnesota on December 11th. For more information visit http://shutitdown.today