Why I Turned Off the Keystone Pipeline and Face 22 Years in Jail

If you are one of the millions of Americans who has been impacted by a major hurricane, drought or forest fire this year, or even if you aren't, you are coping with the prospect that (another) one might hit you anytime.

On some level you know more climate disruptions are coming, with increasing force and frequency.

That engenders a debilitating fear of the future, or what psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, an advisor to Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, calls “Pre -Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

It can leave people feeling paralyzed in the face of the anticipated trouble, and can stymie society’s ability to grapple with looming threats like climate change, or to even talk about them openly.

Yet it’s critical we do so. Pre-TSD is exacerbated by feeling powerless, says Dr. Van Susteren, leaving stress hormones chronically bottled up with no outlet for the ramped-up vigilance, which causes illness. More importantly, it can leave us frozen like deer in the oncoming headlights of climate change.

Constructive action is the antidote, and I took some. A year ago, I and a handful of likeminded colleagues acted simultaneously in four states to shut off the flow of carbon-intensive tar sands from Canada into the US.  

We entered fenced-off areas and closed the emergency valves. I shut off the valve on TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline in North Dakota. We called the pipeline companies in advance to notify them, livestreamed our action to prove it wasn’t a hoax, then peacefully waited for arrest.

Our action was effective. We temporarily halted the flow of all tar sands bitumen in U.S. pipelines, equal to 15 percent of daily US oil consumption. But the pipeline companies and law enforcement didn’t agree that it was constructive. We were charged with felonies carrying many years of jail time.  

GettyImages-466919884 Pipe, prepared for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, sits in a lot on October 14, 2014 outside Gascoyne, North Dakota. Andrew Burton/Getty

North Dakota, where I'm now being tried, is the epicenter of the crackdown against pipeline protesters. But America’s courts are an essential place to discuss the imperative for citizens act to against climate change. As a matter of justice, it’s fundamental to have that discussion, and cite evidence to support it, in front of a jury.

The prosecution disagrees. It moved to block me from presenting evidence of climate danger, the main reason I acted. Prosecutors argue jurors might be biased by hearing about climate change, or being shown evidence of how dirty fossil fuels like tar sands affect it, and what those impacts mean for North Dakotans and all of us.  

They don’t want jurors to know about current research showing it’s still barely possible to restore a viable world to our kids near the end of our century, stabilizing climate below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but only if we cut greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent each year and return 100 gigatons of carbon to the soil (over a trillion trees' worth). That means we must completely decarbonize global energy now, starting with the dirtiest fossil fuels like tar sands and coal.

Why the attempted gag order? After all, the prosecution argues, TransCanada is not on trial, the tar sands pipeline crossing our border is completely legal. So what are they afraid of? What sense does it make to ask my jury to vote their conscience about my act of conscience without hearing my motives or the evidence supporting them?

The prosecution’s position is more than tactical. It reflects a larger societal trauma response, which tends to paralyze and silence us before climate threats. Not naming the climate elephant in the courtroom mirrors our larger discourse on extreme weather and other climate-related disruptions.

Typical coverage of this hurricane season is at pains to say it’s not really about climate change. The BBC’s environmental correspondent asked, “Is this chain of hurricanes evidence of some significant new frontier in our changing climate?” and asserted, “The answer is mostly no, but with worrying undertones of yes.”

What a strange way to address the beginning of the end of the world we love. It’s the trauma talking. But we have a responsibility to shake it off and get to work. It’s not just the pipeline companies and prosecutors, it’s an internal struggle for all of us to break through and face up to human-caused climate harms. Life depends on it.

Across the US, criminal trials are pending for hundreds of citizens who acted against pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure. Their jurors’ own houses are also on fire, and those jurors face the same moral imperative to do something about climate change as the people they are judging.

We can’t allow anxiety to cow us into silence and inaction as the window on climate recovery closes. We must begin talking about and grappling with the personal climate imperatives of our time. Our courts are the place to air the facts and jump-start the discussion.

Michael Foster is a mental health counselor from Seattle, currently on trial on felony charges carrying up to 22 years in prison for shutting off the Keystone 1 tar sands pipeline in North Dakota.

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