October 11 of last year was a crisp, clear day in Skagit County, Washington. I left my motel room an hour before sunrise and drove a couple of miles to a TransCanada pipeline maintenance site in Burlington. Carrying bolt cutters and a bundle of sunflowers, I walked across an open field just as the sun rose. Reaching a chain link fence surrounding the site, I cut a chain securing a gate, entered the facility, cut another chain on an emergency block valve, and then manually closed the valve, stopping the flow of oil through the TransCanada pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Anacortes and outside Bellingham.
At the same time, four friends of mine – Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, Michael Foster, and Emily Johnston – closed valves on the Kinder Morgan Express line in Montana, the Keystone line in North Dakota, and two Enbridge pipelines in Minnesota. Through our collective action, all Canadian tar sands oil entering the country – 15 percent of the total US oil supply – was halted for a day, a move that Reuters said “shook the North American energy industry.”
In Burlington, I waited about 15 minutes for the Skagit County deputies to arrive, and was duly arrested, transported to the county jail, booked, and charged with four felonies. That was expected. Two independent videographers, Lindsey Grayzell and Carl Davies, who documented my action, were also arrested and charged with the same crimes, including burglary and sabotage. That outcome was dumbfounding and unexpected, and caused me (and them) great distress. Charges against them were eventually dropped, but arrest, a night in jail, the stress of facing charges, the expense of legal representation, and the challenge of having equipment held for evidence are all deterrents to independent media coverage of direct action. That may have been the officials’ objective all along.
I went to trial in January on two felony charges of burglary and sabotage. The court refused to permit a necessity defense. That defense would have allowed me to argue that I broke the law in response to an emergency, in this case, climate change, and to present expert witnesses to testify to the gravity of the climate crisis, as well as evidence of the efficacy of nonviolent direct action in addressing precisely this kind of socio-political problem.
Denied a necessity defense, I was allowed some small leeway to introduce a barest minimum of climate science in my direct testimony, as it related to my state of mind. That was sufficient for at least one juror to refuse to convict, and the trial ended in a hung jury. My four fellow “valveturners” also face felony charges, along with three supporters, who took no direct part in the actions, and one videographer.
Since the action, I’ve been asked a number of personal questions: How did you feel? Do you have regrets? Would you do it again? And, as a parent who still has kids at home: How do you balance the risk of incarceration against your parental responsibilities?
Some of these are easier to answer than others. Those about being a parent are probably the hardest. I face the prospect of felony conviction and possible incarceration, which means I risk missing the last of my son’s high school years. This is such a miserable prospect that it is not easy to justify the action I have taken. But I did not take action based on any linear understanding of cause and effect or measured cost-benefit analysis. Direct action doesn’t work that way. I took action without expectations of the long-term impact, in the understanding that my personal intervention in the flow of tar sands oil was worth the risk, even if no one ever knew about it, even if no one was inspired to take action, even if all we did was stop the flow for a day.
That’s not to say that it was an easy call. But for me, the most important question is: What else might I have done that would have been more effective? That’s an easy one to answer, I think. There is nothing that I could have done that would have been more effective than engaging in climate direct action. Therefore, I have no regrets. And if at some point my son asks me, Dad, what did you do to stop this? I’ll be able to tell him that I did everything I could think of to try.
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.