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

By Amy Goodman | NPR
October 10, 2018

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, and Klapstein is a retired attorney for the Puyallup Tribe and member of the Raging Grannies. We also speak with their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs.

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.orgfounder 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.

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