A Washington climate activist is the first “valve turner” to go to prison for shutting off the flow of oil from Canada's tar sands region into the U.S.
In October 2016, five activists got fed up with the usual ways to fight climate change. They decided to take direct action and coordinated a protest by shutting off oil pipelines carrying tar sands oil into the U.S.
The “valve turners” coordinated efforts to shut off pipelines in Washington, Montana, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Now, one of those activists is going to prison for the protest. Seattle resident Michael Foster was sentenced to three years in prison — with two of those years deferred — for his role in shutting off TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in North Dakota.
Fellow activist Ken Ward shut off a pipeline in Washington's Skagit County. After two trials, Ward was eventually sentenced to 30 days of community service. He said Foster's sentencing was "difficult to hear."
“We all took the same action in a coordinated way, and it’s been something of a challenge to see how it’s played out differently in each individual county and state — partly because of the laws, partly because of the politics,” Ward said.
But he said their protest had to be done to bring awareness and spark action to stop climate change.
“(You) put your body on the line as a means of demonstrating that there are at least a core of people who believe so strongly in the quality of the problem that we’re willing — if need be — to go to jail to try to stop it,” Ward said.
Neither Ward nor Foster were not able to use what's called a "necessity defense." That would mean the climate activists violated the law, but it had to be done for the greater good. Two of the protesters will be able to use that defense in Minnesota. Another protestor is awaiting sentencing in Montana.
Foster was convicted of misdemeanor trespass, felony criminal mischief and conspiracy to commit criminal mischief. His fellow defendant, Sam Jessup, videoed the valve turning in North Dakota.
Jessup was convicted of criminal mischief and conspiracy trespass. He was sentenced to two years in prison — both years were deferred — and supervised probation.