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Valve Turners on Trial: Judge Acquits Three Climate Activists Who Shut Down Tar Sands Pipelines

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A month before the 2016 election, anti-pipeline activists staged an unprecedented coordinated action to shut down the flow of oil from Canada to the United States. On October 11, 2016, activists in North Dakota, Washington, Montana and Minnesota turned the manual safety valves on four pipelines, temporarily halting the flow of nearly 70 percent of the crude oil imported to the United States from Canada. They came to be known as the “valve turners.” What followed was a lengthy legal battle that ended with some of the activists in jail. But on Tuesday, three valve turners who broke into an oil pipeline facility in Minnesota on that day in 2016 were acquitted. We speak with the valve turners themselves, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, about their acquittal. Johnston is a poet and co-founder of 350Seattle.org, and Klapstein is a retired attorney for the Puyallup Tribe and member of the Raging Grannies. We also speak with their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Minnesota, where a court has acquitted three anti-pipeline activists who broke into an oil pipeline facility intending to cut off the flow of tar sands oil coming into the United States from Canada. The so-called valve turners, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, along with a support person, Benjamin Joldersma, are part of the group Climate Direct Action. The activists mounted a coordinated campaign on October 11, 2016, in which they cut chains and turned the manual safety valves to stop the flow of oil through the Enbridge Energy pipelines in four locations. This is Joldersma calling Enbridge from the valve site to warn them of the action.

BENJAMIN JOLDERSMA: I’m here with Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein. We’re calling from Leonard, Minnesota. We’re currently at the block valve sites for Lines 4 and 67, which is 10 miles southeast from the Clearbrook pumping station. For the sake of climate justice, to ensure a future for human civilization, we must immediately halt the extraction and burning of Canadian tar sands. For safety, I am calling to inform you that when I hang up this phone, we are closing the valves. Please shut down these two pipelines now, for safety and for our future.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ben Joldersma in a clip from the film Valve Turners, as he called Enbridge Energy. In all, 10 people were arrested as part of the campaign, that saw similar actions in North Dakota, Montana and Washington state. Three other defendants who took part in the effort have lost their cases and face short sentences, community service mandates and deferred imprisonment.

The Minnesota case was the first and only of the four valve turner cases where a judge allowed the defendants to use the necessity defense. The activists say their decision to break the law was necessitated by the clear and present danger posed by climate change. Later, the judge ruled expert witnesses, including 350.org founder Bill McKibben and former top NASA climate scientist James Hansen, would not be allowed to testify on their behalf. This is defendant Emily Johnston speaking after her acquittal Tuesday.

EMILY JOHNSTON: I’m very relieved the state of Minnesota acknowledged that we did no damage and intended to do no damage. I also admit that I am disappointed that we did not get to put on the trial that we hoped for. You know, we very much wanted everyone to be able to hear—for our jurors to be able to hear—from our expert witnesses. We did this action almost two years ago to the day—Thursday will be the second anniversary—because the problem of climate change is so urgent that we have to start shutting tar sands pipelines down now.

AMY GOODMAN: The trial came just as the United Nations climate panel warned in a landmark report that humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe.

For more, we go to Minneapolis, where we’re joined by valve turners Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, as well as Dr. James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA, now the director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. And with us, Kelsey Skaggs, one of the attorneys representing the valve turners in their necessity defense. She is also executive director of the Climate Defense Project.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with the valve turners yourselves, Emily and Annette. Emily, begin by talking about the significance of your acquittal, but first, what exactly you did in October two years ago.

*EMILY JOHNSTON: Thank you, Amy. So, we entered—we broke the links to a couple of chains to enter into the enclosures where the pipelines were with their valves. We began to shut off one of those valves. But we had made two safety calls in advance, so that the pipeline companies could shut them down remotely, if they chose to. And we knew that that was actually standard procedure. And they did, in fact, start doing that shortly thereafter.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Emily Johnston—rather, Annette Klapstein, why did you decide to do this?

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: We decided to do this because tar sands are the dirtiest and most climate-polluting oil that there is. And as Dr. Hansen has said, you know, it’s game over for the climate if these are developed. So, we wanted to shut them down because they absolutely have to be shut down if we are to have a chance of having our children and future generations have a habitable planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your role as a retired attorney and a Raging Granny? Who do you represent?

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: Who do I represent?

AMY GOODMAN: No, as an attorney.

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: Oh, I was staff attorney for the Puyallup Indian Tribe for 21 years. I retired in 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: And did some of your work there inform what you did here?

ANNETTE KLAPSTEIN: Yes, to some extent. I mostly worked on fisheries issues, and fisheries are the absolute heart of the spiritual, cultural and economic life of Pacific Northwest tribes. And the salmon are now endangered almost everywhere, in part because of climate change. We have the issue of these streams and rivers where the salmon spawn becoming too warm for them to do that, and we have a number of salmon runs that are endangered and threatened and, in a couple of cases, extinct.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Johnston, your concern about facing terrorism charges? Explain exactly what you faced and what you—you were acquitted, but what you were confronting in terms of prison sentences, and your other colleagues who were valve turners in other states.

EMILY JOHNSTON: Yes. So, we knew, when we planned this action, that we would be open to all kinds of homeland security charges and potentially federal charges and statutes that were developed after 9/11 around energy infrastructure. So we went into this with our eyes wide open. And, in fact, the charge that we received, the main charge, was one of those statutes. You know, in a way, I think that was oddly lucky, because it was overreach, and that’s why we were acquitted. You know, they could have gotten us on trespassing or something else. But because they went for something that they absolutely couldn’t support, that explains what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelsey Skaggs, you’re an attorney for the valve turners. Were you surprised by what transpired? First the judge ruled, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Columbus Day, on Monday, that they could not have their expert witnesses talking about climate change, like Bill McKibben of 350.org and like our next guest who we’ll talk to, Dr. James Hansen, but then acquitted them. Explain what happened.

KELSEY SKAGGS: Yes, Amy, I was surprised both times. We received a ruling in this case a year ago allowing us to present the climate necessity defense, which would include expert testimony, as you mentioned, and then the last minute ruling really rolled that back and excluded much of the expert testimony that we had prepared. That seemed to us to be directly contradictory to the year-old ruling in this case, so we were very surprised by that and disappointed.

In terms of the acquittal, it is procedurally quite rare for a judge to acquit clients at that state of the case. In our criminal legal system, the state has to prove what the defendants did, and this judge’s decision to acquit early on in the case meant that it didn’t even go to the jury, because the judge determined that no jury could reasonably convict them. So that doesn’t happen very often.

And I agree with Emily’s assessment that these defendants were inappropriately charged, from the beginning, under one of the anti-protest laws that we’ve seen the fossil fuel industry try to push through across the country. And it certainly was overreach, and I think the acquittal is a good sign that prosecutions under these anti-protest laws may not stand.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Kelsey Skaggs is the attorney for Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, the so-called valve turners who were acquitted by a judge yesterday in Minnesota, as they took on the pipeline politics of this country, challenging the flow of tar sands from Canada through the United States. When we come back, we will also be joined by Dr. James Hansen, who was going to testify around the issue of climate change in their defense, but the judge said no. Stay with us.

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