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Greenpeace Houston protest

Greenpeace USA climbers hang from and blockade the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown, Texas on September 12, 2019, shutting down the largest fossil fuel thoroughfare in the United States. (Photo: Greenpeace USA)

Climate Activists Who Blocked Houston Bridge to Fossil Fuel Traffic Cleared of All Federal Charges

"The most dangerous thing about that shipping channel wasn't the activists—it was and continues to be fossil fuel executives' reckless plans to push us further towards climate chaos."

Brett Wilkins

After two years in the court system, Greenpeace USA announced Tuesday that 22 activists who suspended themselves from a Texas bridge in a daring 2019 protest targeting key fossil fuel infrastructure reached an agreement that will allow them to be cleared of all federal charges.

"We can either take the bold actions necessary to stave off the climate crisis today or suffer the radical consequences of climate-fueled disasters."

The environmental group said the activists signed a deferred prosecution agreement under which the U.S. Attorney General's office will dismiss the case following a brief waiting period, pending payment of certain costs incurred by law enforcement.

"In Houston and around the world, Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of the climate crisis," Greenpeace USA activist Rico Sisney, who participated in the protest, said in a statement.

"For too long, fossil fuel companies have poisoned communities to line the pockets of a handful of billionaires," he added. "They've gotten away with it in the same way that corporations and politicians get away with dehumanizing migrants, disabled, low-income, and other marginalized people all too often. Working together, we can ensure that the clean energy revolution will leave no one behind."

On September 12, 2019, a group of Greenpeace activists rappelled from the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown, the nation's largest fossil fuel thoroughfare, for 18 hours ahead of a Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston. Local media reported the direct action forced the closure of the Port of Houston for approximately 24 hours. 

According to Greenpeace:

On average, 700,000 barrels of oil pass through the Houston Ship Channel every single day. Cancer-causing toxic air and water pollution harm local communities every day, while the continuation and expansion of fossil fuel business harm us all as we barrel towards a point of no return in the climate crisis.

The shores of the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel are home to the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world. Refineries operated by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and more sit dangerously close to homes and schools. Every day, these facilities threaten the health of the majority Black, Brown, and low-income communities that surround them. 

"I don't want to see every single corner of this country be exploited for fossil fuels while communities are being torn apart by oil spills, chemical fires, and more extreme floods, fires, droughts, and storms," protester Piper Werle wrote at the time. "If we don't rise up and resist... the oil industry right now, we'll soon be at the point of no return."

Twenty-two demonstrators were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting obstruction of navigable waters, which could have resulted in a year in federal prison and a $2,500 fine.

Harris County prosecutors charged 31 people involved with the protest with felonies under a highly controversial fossil fuel industry-backed state law criminalizing interference with oil and gas pipelines and other "critical infrastructure;" however, a grand jury declined to indict them.

Noting that "we are in a climate emergency created by the fossil fuel industry," Greenpeace USA deputy general counsel Deepa Padmanabha warned Tuesday that "we have little more than a decade to take ambitious action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

"That means starting the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy now," she continued. "We can either take the bold actions necessary to stave off the climate crisis today or suffer the radical consequences of climate-fueled disasters—more floods, more megastorms, and more fires—for years to come."

"This was a peaceful action," Padmanabha added. "The most dangerous thing about that shipping channel wasn't the activists—it was and continues to be fossil fuel executives' reckless plans to push us further towards climate chaos."

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