Climate Activist Escapes Conviction in Action That Shut Down 5 Pipelines

A county court in Washington declared a mistrial in the case of Ken Ward, part of a group of activists who closed valves to a series of pipelines in 2016.

Anti-pipeline activist Ken Ward and two members of his legal team
A mistrial was declared in climate activist Ken Ward's trial for a pipeline shutdown protest in Skagit County, Wash. Ward is pictured here along with two members of his legal team, Kelsey Skaggs (left) and Cooper Brinson (right). Credit: Shut It Down

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This story was updated to reflect that activist Ken Ward was ordered on Feb. 14 to face a new trial for shutting off an emergency valve for an oil sands pipeline last October.

Climate activist Ken Ward eluded conviction on multiple criminal charges for shutting off an emergency valve for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline last October after a county court in Washington declared a mistrial.

Following three days of trial in Washington’s Skagit County Superior Court, the jury deliberated Ward’s fate for about five hours before failing to unanimously agree to convict him of sabotage, burglary and two counts of felony. Skagit Country has since announced their intention to retry Ward

Ward’s first trial, which began on Monday, was the first for the five activists that were charged for helping to shut off emergency valves of five oil sands pipelines across four states on Oct. 11. Ward and his colleagues, who call themselves “ValveTurners,” filmed their coordinated acts of civil disobedience, which resulted in the temporary shutdown of segments of five pipelines: the Trans Mountain, Enbridge’s Line 4 and 67, TransCanada’s Keystone and Spectra Energy’s Express Pipeline.

“In five hours, the jury was unable to decide that with all of the evidence against me, including the video of me closing the valve, that this was a crime,” Ward said in a statement. “This is a tremendous outcome.”

Ward had planned to use what’s called the necessity defense in trial, which would have involved calling climate experts to testify that climate crisis is so dire that he had to break the law to protect other citizens from global warming. The presiding judge Michael Rickert, however, denied this request pre-trial. Consequently, Ward called only himself as a witness during the trial. On the stand, he defended his actions as necessary to protect the planet from climate change.

“We greatly appreciate the efforts of the authorities to enforce the law in this case,” Ali Hounsell, a spokesman for the Trans Mountain project, said in a statement. “The outcome of the trial doesn’t change the fact that his actions recklessly put both the environment and communities at risk.”

“Given the inability to present the necessity defense, I was braced for a conviction on at least one count,” activist Emily Johnston wrote in an email to InsideClimate News. “So the refusal to convict seems really important.” Johnston, who helped shut off the valves for two Enbridge pipelines, will be tried in Minnesota. Her trial date has not yet been set and neither have those for the other protesters.

The trials present a delicate test case of how far civil disobedience should go and will go at a time of growing protests against fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States.

The Skagit County court will also hear many similar cases involving dozens of environmental protesters who were arrested for blocking oil trains last April.