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Climate activist Abby Brockway sits atop a tripod blocking a BNSF oil train in Everett, Washington in September 2014. (Photo: the Delta 5)

Climate activist Abby Brockway sits atop a tripod blocking a BNSF oil train in Everett, Washington in September 2014. (Photo: the Delta 5)

'Necessity Defense' at Oil Train Trial Marks Historic Test for Climate Defenders

In unprecedented legal case, Delta 5 argue that September 2014 blockade was necessary to prevent harm to greater good

Lauren McCauley

History is being made this week in a packed Seattle-area courtroom as five activists standing trial for blocking an oil train argue that they were compelled to act because of the threat of climate change.

The trial marks the first time a U.S. judge has permitted the "necessity defense" to be used in a case relating to climate action.

"Their direct action, their civil disobedience was a necessary act to prevent the greater harm of climate change," activist Tim DeChristopher of the Climate Disobedience Center told local news KIRO7 on Monday. "In this case, the greater harm of the risk of oil explosions as the trains go through local communities."

During opening proceedings on Monday, defendant Patrick Mazza, who is representing himself, told the courtroom that he and his co-defendants will "present evidence about the oil train threat," arguing that the impact of so-called "bomb trains" and the subsequent carbon emissions are so serious that the group's actions were necessary to avert them.

In September 2014, the defendants, known as the Delta 5, staged an 8-hour blockade of a BNSF rail line carrying crude oil through the town of Everett. The group tied themselves to a 25-foot tripod structure which they had erected over the tracks. Mazza, along with Abby Brockway, Mike Lapointe, Jackie Minchew, and Liz Spoerri have been charged with "criminal trespass."

"I believe what they did was justified. I believe if things keep going the way they’re going, we’re heading toward climate disaster," said Diane Cortese, who was among the 100 or so supporters who gathered in front of the South Snohomish County District Court in Lynnwood, Washington. "In order to see change, we’re all going to need more civil disobedience," she said.

The trial has garnered national attention. Environmentalists fed up with the continued and dangerous expansion of fossil fuels hope the climate necessity defense will prove to be a valuable legal tool as the need for direct action grows.

DeChristopher, who had attempted to use the defense to justify his 2011 disruption of a federal gas lease auction in Utah, explained on Democracy Now! Monday what the potential implications are for this trial.

"This is the first time that defendants who have taken civil disobedience action will be able to present a full defense, including climate scientists and oil train explosion experts," he said, "as well as sharing all their own testimony about why they were driven to take this action, why the government's response to climate change is not adequate, why citizens are called to take action in this way on their own - and have six random jurors, that are not climate activists, that are just regular people who are selected for jury duty, make their own decision of whether or not this kind of action is justified.

"And to me," DeChristopher continued, "that involvement of the jury is really critical, because a fully informed and empowered jury is the, really, only difference between actual justice and mere legalism."

As activist resource Climate Disobedience Center notes, with Congress's recent decision to lift the oil export ban, there will be an even-greater push for more oil-by-rail and other export facilities. "Activists have pledged an increased campaign of direct action and civil disobedience until these terminals are rejected," the group states. "The outcome of next week’s trial could set important precedent for future actions of this kind."

Explaining why she was moved to direct action, Spoerri said, "It was clear that the political reality is not keeping up with the physical reality, and that citizens need to lead."

She continued: "We have solutions but we are not acting fast enough. We don’t have to build terminals and then turn a blind eye to the consequences...If we reorient ourselves to prevent climate chaos we can address so many other problems at the same time."

DeChristopher is reporting on the trial live on Twitter as arguments continue this week while others are sharing news about the case under the hashtag #Delta5. Supporters have also set up a legal fund for the group.

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