On October 11, 207, five activists shut down all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands oil into the United States [link to map of action sites]. In a statement released that day, the “Shut It Down” activists wrote that such climate direct action is a meaningful and appropriate option “...when our governments and economic systems are committed to a course of global suicide, and are willing and able to bend the political system and civic discourse to their will.”
Reuters news service reported that this “biggest coordinated move on U.S. energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters... shook the North American energy industry,” interdicting an estimated 15% of the US oil supply, and was a “rare instance of an environmental group focusing on disrupting operating energy infrastructure.”
The action was carefully planned over several months by an ad hoc group of activists under the name “Climate Direct Action,” and was timed in response to a call for “action and prayer” from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in support of their fight against the KXL pipeline.
By the end of the day, the five activists - who have come to be known as the “Valve Turners” , two supporters, and three independent videographers were arrested and charged with multiple, significant crimes, in four local jurisdictions (Clearwater County, MN, Pembina County, ND, Chouteau County, MT, and Skagit County, WA), likely under federal coordination. Another supporter and videographer would eventually be charged as well.
As of September, 2018, three Valve Turners and one supporter have been tried and convicted on felony charges, one supporter entered into a plea bargain, and charges against four video documentarians have been dropped. One Valve Turner, Michael Foster spent six months in North Dakota prison. Valve Turners Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, and supporter Ben Joldersma, are scheduled for trial in Bagely, MN on October 8, 2018, where they have been granted the unusual right to offer a climate necessity defense.
This substantial law enforcement response has been insufficient for the pipeline industry, which through corporate lobbying front groups, like the American Legislative Affairs Council, is pressing for harsher legal action. An October, 2017 letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, coordinated by ALEC, signed by 84 members of Congress, asked whether the Department of Justice has “taken any prosecutorial action... against those involved with the highly publicized October 11, 2018 attempted sabotage of four major crude oil pipelines in multiple states.”
The Shut It Down action received a good deal of mainstream and social media attention, and, as part of the broader struggle against pipeline construction galvanized by the Standing Rock KXL pipeline struggle, has been galvanizing for activists. Two documentary films cover the action, produced by three videographers who were charged after the action - Steve Liptay’s Valve Turners, and The Reluctant Radical, produced by Lindsey Grayzell and Deia Schlosberg. Thousands of supporters have attended trials, organized community forums, written to incarcerated Valve Turner Michael Foster, contributed to the Shut It Down legal defense, and are now gearing up for the Minnesota climate necessity trial on October 8, 2018.
Meaning of the Action
The change in US civic discourse in the two years since the Shut It Down action is staggering. Even as the speed of climate collapse has accelerated with nearly incomprehensible speed, this single greatest challenge to the integrity of global ecosystems, and maintenance of convictions that make civilization possible, is virtually ignored. Things are far worse than two years ago, and our capacity to do anything meaningful to arrest the harm is negligible.
Facing this existential struggle to continue with confidence in the face of chaos is at the very core of what the Valve Turners’ intended in the Shut it Down action. In a recent post, Emily Johnston spoke of the challenge to every one of us, not just those brave enough to shut down pipelines:
“it’s such an astonishing honor to live in this moment, knowing that we probably still have the power to set the world back onto a stable path, and thereby make life better, or at least possible, for countless people and other beings. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful.”