Mistrial Spares R.I. Activist for Pipeline Shutdown

Ken Ward, middle, and his legal team after a judge declared a mistrial outside Skagit County District Court in Mt. Vernon, Wash. (Climate Disobedience Center)

Ken Ward, middle, and his legal team after a judge declared a mistrial outside Skagit County District Court in Mt. Vernon, Wash. (Climate Disobedience Center)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

For the second time in three years, former Rhode Islander Ken Ward avoided a multiyear jail sentence for a crime he readily admits he committed.

Ward, a seasoned environmental activist who grew up and worked in Providence, drew nationwide media attention in 2013 when he and Jay O’Hara of Bourne, Mass., anchored a lobster boat in the path of a 700-foot coal freighter. The peaceful protest delayed the shipment of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass.

After a tense standoff with law enforcement, both faced more than 10 years in prison on charges of conspiracy, disturbing the peace and motor-vessel violations. At their trial, Ward and O’Hara intended to use an unusual climate-necessity defense that included testimony from prominent climate experts Bill McKibben and James Hansen. But shortly before the trial began in 2014, a sympathetic district attorney dropped the most serious charges and canceled the trial. Climate change, said then-Attorney General Samuel Sutter, was a “grave crisis.”

Ward has since moved to Oregon, where, drawing on the "Lobster Boat Blockade" experience, he co-founded the Climate Disobedience Center with O’Hara and renowned activist Tim DeChristopher. The center advises other groups on protests, and its members commit symbolic acts of civil disobedience such as Ward protesting and getting arrested at a Mobil gas station.

But on Oct. 11, 2016, Ward participated in a protest with more severe legal consequences. In Burlington, Wash., he cut chain locks and turned off an emergency block valve on a pipeline that delivers tar-sands oil from Canada to refineries in Washington state.

Ward was arrested and charged with two felonies — sabotage and burglary — for the crimes against the Kinder Morgan-owned TransMountain Pipeline. If convicted, he faced up to 20 years in prison and $40,000 in fines. Unlike the lobster-boat incident, the trial moved forward. The judge also blocked the necessity defense, preventing any expert testimony from climate experts. Ward was the only person to testify during the defense portion of the three-day trial.

“Despite this, Ward’s defense consisted exclusively of his motivation to confront the threat of climate change, and the defense did not contest a single piece of evidence brought by the prosecution. Several exhibits demonstrating climate science and impacts and the role of civil disobedience in societal change were permitted as evidence,” according to a Climate Disobedience Center press release.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury failed to reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.

“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. I didn’t contest a single piece of the evidence, only presented my story and evidence of catastrophic climate change. This is a tremendous outcome,” Ward said after the decision.

Ward is free while he awaits a Feb. 9 hearing to find out if prosecutors will schedule a new trial or drop the charges. Ward believes a retrial is likely given that Skagit County is dominated by fossil-fuel companies such as Shell Oil.

Four other “valve turners” await trial for committing simultaneous pipeline shutdowns in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota. The peaceful protests were done after a nationwide call to action by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who is resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Reuters described the valve-turners action as the biggest coordinated move on U.S. energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.