One Trial Ends, Another Begins for Local Activists

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A trial intended to draw attention to the widely held notion that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) does the biding of the fossil-fuel industry has been halted.

On June 5, Superior Court of the District of Columbia announced that it had dropped charges against the so-called “FERC4” who were awaiting trail stemming from a protest at FERC headquarters in May 2016.

University of Rhode Island professor Peter Nightingale is one of the FERC4 who locked hands and formed a human blockade outside the underground exit to a FERC parking garage at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.. The other protesters charged were Claude Guillemard of Baltimore, Ellen Taylor of Albany, N.Y., and Donald Weightman of Philadelphia.

A jury trial for a charge of misdemeanor, unlawful entry was scheduled to begin June 21. The charge was levied after the four were arrested for their role in a series of “Rubber Stamp Rebellion” protests in Washington, D.C., organized by the activist group Beyond Extreme Energy.

In a press release, the FERC4 said the federal government wanted to avoid a sensational trial intended to show that FERC habitually approves oil and pipeline permits for the industry while ignoring environmental and pipeline-safety issues.

“When it dismissed the criminal charge against the FERC4, the government ducked involvement in a wave of anti-fossil industry and anti-government court battles,” according to the press release.

Nightingale, a physics professor, said the protests and court case were about sending a message to the legal system. “Judges and juries should know that they have become among the last barriers standing in the way of a global climate cataclysm," he said.

Valve turners
In February, Providence native Ken Ward was spared a potential prison sentence when his trail for felony sabotage and burglary ended in a hung jury. The district attorney elected to retry Ward and the new case started June 5. Ward was one of five “valve turners” who on Oct. 11, 2016 simultaneously cut chain locks and turned off valves on pipelines that deliver Canadian tar-sands oil to refineries in Washington state. Ward's protest took place on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion.

Other protesters committed similar acts of civil disobedience on tar-sands pipelines in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Ward and Jay O’Hara of Bourne, Mass., are known for their "Lobster Boat Blockade" in 2013 that halted a tanker ship from delivering coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass. Both were cleared of the most serious charges after the district attorney declared climate change a “grave crisis.”

It’s not clear if Ward will have similar success at his new trial. In the first trial, the judge denied Ward from using a necessity defense and calling climate experts to testify. Sakgit County, Wash., where the trial is being held, is home to several large fossil-fuel companies.

According to Facebook posts, the trial is moving quickly.