In Landmark ‘Necessity Defense’ Trial, Valve Turners Will Argue Saving the Planet Justified Tar Sand Pipeline Shutdown

“If we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Three activists whose landmark trial is set to begin in Minnesota state court on Monday for their 2016 multi-state #ShutItDown action—which temporarily disabled all tar sands pipelines crossing the U.S.-Canada border—will argue the action was necessary because of the threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet.

Rejecting a challenge from state prosecutors in April, an appeals court ruled that the “valve turners” can present a “necessity defense“—and bring in top climate experts to testify. In June, the Minnesota Supreme Court denied prosecutors’ petition to appeal that ruling.

The necessity defense “is a plea that, yes technically we committed a crime, but we did it to prevent a greater harm,” explained Annette Klapstein, a retired attorney from the Seattle area and one of the valve turners on trial.

“We cannot work through our political system, because its values are nothing but profit,” she told The Nation. “We live in an oligarchy, not a democracy.”

“It’s very much in the interest of the capitalist political system to make us feel powerless, to make us feel that we can’t do anything,” she added, but “ultimately, they cannot win if we do not consent. If we really withdraw our consent, if we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Klapstein and Emily Nesbitt Johnston are facing felony charges under Minnesota law for shutting down Enbridge Energy’s Line 4 and Line 67. While Benjamin Joldersma, who assisted them, also faces charges in the case, the state has dropped trespassing charges against videographer Steve Liptay.

The Nation reports that Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens and Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig are among the expert witnesses slated to testify. Dr. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has been called “the father of modern climate change awareness,” and co-founder Bill McKibben will also testify in case, according to the activist group Climate Direct Action.

“These people deserve our respect and support,” McKibben said on Twitter about the valve turners in Minnesota on Friday.

This will be the first of the valve turner cases where those on trial can present a necessity defense, as judges in three states have barred fellow activists from doing so. In Washington, Ken Ward was found guilty of second degree burglary after his first trial ended with a hung jury. The judge used a “first-time offender waiver” to sentence him to two days in jail, which was fulfilled by time in custody after he was arrested for the 2016 action.

In North Dakota, Michael Foster was convicted of two felonies and a misdemeanor, and sentenced to three years in prison, though he only served six months and was released in August. Sam Jessup, who livestreamed Foster’s action, was convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor, and received a two-year deferred sentence with supervised probation. In Montana, Leonard Higgins was found guilty of a felony and misdemeanor. He received a three-year deferred sentence.

Common Dreams

Going beyond ‘The Green Transformation’

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party has taken significant steps away from the soft-neoliberalism of Tony Blair, towards a more interventionist economic strategy, aiming to boost productivity, redistribute wealth and power from the rich to the poor and tackle the great problems of the 21st century, writes Andrea Grainger

Chief among those problems is climate change and other forms of ecological devastation. During this year’s Labour conference the party released a new paper; The Green Transformation [1], laying out labours solutions for these problems.

The plan focuses on three environmental problems; Climate Change, Air and Water Quality, and Biodiversity, and on six policy areas; Housing, Energy, Water, Transport, International policy, and Farming, Fishing and Wildlife.

The Good

Underlying Labour’s plans is their new industrial strategy, with £250 billion of spending over the next ten years. This pays for programmes to insulate Britain’s housing stock, electrify and expand our railways, plant millions of trees, build renewable power stations, and establish science and innovation funds to develop sustainable farming techniques. At conference, Jeremy Corbyn promised to create 400,000 new green jobs.’

Labour combines this green strategy with steps towards a more democratic and decentralised economy, particularly through the nationalisation of the railways and water services, and the creation of locally owned energy networks.

Labour is also supporting the young, and small businesses, with support for small-scale fishing and free bus passes for under 25s. This expands on their commitment in the last manifesto to reintroduce the agricultural wages board and to support small farmers against big supermarkets.

In terms of the party’s foreign policy they are promising to divest foreign aid from fossil fuel projects and to support a green transition in poorer countries.

Labour’s climate change plan commits them to aiming for not more than 1.5 degrees warming, and cutting carbon emissions by 2050 to zero, as strongly urged by the recent IPCC report.

The Bad

Labour industrial strategy, while a significant improvement, is still limited by a mistaken view of public finances which came from the right and has become mainstream. Since Milton Friedman developed his ‘monetarist’ economics in the 1970s, and former Labour Prime Minister Callaghan adopted it as Labour Party policy, Labour has never really challenged it.
Britain can afford to be spending much more than £25 billion a year, and creating many more jobs. The Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group has developed proposals for one climate million jobs. [2]

And while Labour has plans for democratising energy, water and transport, they lack similar proposals for food. The ‘Peoples Food policy’ sets out how this might be done, through the creation and financing of local food councils, and the active participation of communities and farmers in DEFRA’s policy making. [3]

Labour’s policies for food and wildlife also lack any mention of land. Urban sprawl, land hoarding and intensive farming practices each cause significant pressure on Britain’s land, that need to be addressed with a powerful Land Value Tax.

The report mentions ‘Ending our reliance on finite resources’, but only considers fossil fuels, plastic and food waste. There is no mention of minerals and metals here, or in any other Labour report.

The party has not yet made any attempt to respond to the ‘peak minerals’ crisis that many environmentalists are trying to draw attention to. Responding to this would mean moving towards a ‘circular economy’ in resources, with large-scale investment in recycling, and eco-design regulations to force companies to develop products to last a long time, and be recyclable at the end of their life.

Beyond this, there is also no sign that Labour is taking the ecological limits to growth seriously. Many of their plans involve reducing the resource intensity of our economic activity. While this is necessary, it’s not sufficient to protect the planet. As William Jevons first pointed out one-hundred and fifty years ago [4], increasing the efficiency of resource use drives down the cost for consumers, leading to higher consumption, and faster resource depletion.

To ensure the protection of our planet, we must have hard caps on the use of certain resources. Caps on carbon emissions, caps on resource extraction, caps on deforestation and pollution levels. So far Labour has only agreed to caps on fishing, so huge space remains for our planet to continue being ruined.

On carbon emissions, Labour’s plans are relatively ambitious, but also very risky. The latest IPCC says that if all countries decarbonise at the same rate, and reach zero emissions by 2050, then we give ourselves a 50% chance of preventing 1.5 degrees temperature rise. A 50% chance of catastrophic climate change is still very high, so Britain under a Labour government should be aiming for more. And it is very likely that some countries will not meet this target, so if we are seriously committed to 1.5 degrees, britain will need to pick up the slack.

As well as a faster plan, Labour also needs a clearer long-term structure. What is going to be the enforcement mechanism moving forward? How will Labour incentivise a rapid transition, and penalise companies that fail to follow through? Labour could establish some kind of strict carbon budgeting, or introduce laws protecting the environment and punishing ecological damage. Both of these would let businesses plan ahead, and make long-term investments to decarbonise in the time allowed.


Labour’s plans are a good step forward, but are still limited to tackling the problems most known to the public, within the framework of the financial restrictions allowed by mainstream economic theory. There is need for much greater radical rethinking of economics to ensure protection of the planet.