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Climate 'Hero' Gets Three-Year Prison Sentence for Shutting Down Tar Sands Pipeline

"If other people don't take action, mine makes no difference," Michael Foster said. "The only way what I did matters is if people are stopping the poison."

Climate activist Michael Foster, photographed Tuesday outside a North Dakota courthouse with his partner Sue Lenander, was sentenced to serve at least a year in prison for temporarily shutting down the Keystone pipeline in October 2016. (Photo: Climate Direct Action/Facebook)

Michael Foster, the valve turner who temporarily halted the flow of tar sands oil in TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in October 2016, called for future actions to address the global climate crisis before he headed to prison, where he is expected to serve at least a year of his three-year sentence.

"Michael Foster isn't a criminal; he's a hero."
—Dr. James Hansen,
climate expert

"It doesn't matter if I'm sitting in jail. What matters is stopping the pollution," Foster,  a 53-year-old mental health counselor from Seattle, declared after his sentencing in North Dakota on Tuesday.

"If other people don't take action, mine makes no difference," he continued. "And if they don't, the planet comes apart at the seams. The only way what I did matters is if people are stopping the poison."

Although others who participated in the multi-state #ShutItDown action two years ago have been allowed to present a "necessity defense"—or argue they believed their act was "necessary to avoid or minimize a harm" that was "greater than the harm resulting from the violation of the law"—Judge Laurie A. Fontaine rejected such a defense for Foster and Sam Jessup, who filmed Foster's action and received a two-year deferred prison sentence with supervised probation.

Outside the court, Dr. James Hansen—who has been called "the father of modern climate change awareness" and was barred from testifying during the trial last year—said the public is generally unaware of the need to urgently address the climate crisis, emphasizing that we are entering "the age of consequences" for burning fossil fuels. "Michael Foster isn't a criminal," Hansen added, "he's a hero."

The decision to sentence Foster to prison time was decried by other climate activists, including fellow valve turner Emily Johnston, who pointed out the lack of legal consequences for environmental degradation caused by the fossil fuel industry:

"TransCanada and the State of North Dakota had both pushed for a harsh sentence to deter other climate activists (the prosecution recommended five years)," according to a statement released Tuesday by Climate Direct Action, which launched the #ShutItDown action. Foster faced a maximum penalty of 21 years in prison, but is expected to only serve one year and then to be released on probation. 

"I made a decision to commit civil disobedience to defend my family tree and yours, knowing that there is no government, no politician, no corporation on planet right now putting forward a plan to defend life as we know it," Foster also said Tuesday. "My kids and yours won't survive this mess if we don't clean up all this."

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