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Climate Change Activist Convicted of Turning Valve, Faces Decade in Prison

This is not the first time pipeline activists have faced felony convictions.

Caroline Haskins

Caroline Haskins

On Wednesday, climate activist Ken Ward was found guilty of second degree burglary, a Class B felony, for blocking oil flow to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline at its Anacortes refinery in Washington state. Sentencing for the charge will take place on June 22nd, where he could face up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $20,000.

Last October, Ward participated in the nationwide oil pipeline protest #ShutItDown. The event was organized by the Climate Disobedience Action Fund, which Ward co-founded. By coordinating oil flow disruptions at pipeline refineries around the country, 15% of all daily oil transportation in the US was inhibited.

After cutting a valve wheel chain and closing the valve—which was not carrying any oil—Ward was arrested on charges that could have meant up to 30 years in prison. Ward is one of five #ShutItDown activists currently facing felony charges.

Ward's initial trial in January resulted in a hung jury, and the following pretrial gained attention when the judge said that the existence of climate change was up for debate. Today's retrial found him guilty of second degree burglary, but the jury was hung on charges of saboteur.

The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline that Ward targeted is no stranger to controversy. The pipeline has experienced over 80 spills in the past seven decades, including four spills whose flow exceeded 1,000 barrels in volume. Despite this, the Canadian government recently approved a C$7.4 billion expansion project expected to begin this September. Yes, even your heartthrob Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed the expansion. Defenders of the pipeline note that it's the only oil connection from Alberta to British Columbia, and Canada to the Pacific Northwest.

Following his arraignment last October, Ward said in a statement that direct action is the only effective response to counter the effects of climate change.

"I am a responsible and law abiding citizen," he said. "I did these things because I believe that it is the obligation of every thinking person to find a way to stave off climate cataclysm, and there is no effective, legal alternative to personal direct action."

Lauren C. Regan, Ward's attorney, said that Ward's defense team focused on the fact that Ward's intentions were to prevent harm brought on by climate change to his fellow citizens.

"We sort of likened these actions to those of people who engaged in the Boston Tea Party and who risked their liberty," Regan told me. "That in many ways, particularly in regards to Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord, and the fact that the government seems unable to adequately protect the public from exacerbating climate change, that it may be that the people are going to act on their own behalf to protect their communities and their futures."

Despite his conviction, Ward was comforted by the fact that jurors approached him after the trial to announce their intentions to take action to fight climate change.

"I consider it a huge opportunity to have done this and I hope it can inspire others to do this," Ward said. "Time is running out. We can just hope for the best here."