On Aug. 1, Michael Foster will be released from prison in Bismark, North Dakota and return home to his loved ones and community in Seattle.
A quietly spoken, 53-year-old climate activist, Foster doesn’t care if you remember his name. But getting a bigger message into the world about what he did — and why he did it — is an urgent and excruciating obsession.
On Oct. 11, 2016, Foster cut his way through a chain-link fence near Cavalier, North Dakota, turned a large, outdoor valve, and stopped the flow of crude oil through TransCanada Corporation’s controversial Keystone Pipeline. Simultaneously, using the same technique, fellow activists shut down four other oil pipeline entry points into the United States. Within a few minutes, and for a few hours, 15 percent of the nation’s daily oil supply was literally cut off.
The Keystone Pipeline was a carefully chosen symbol for Foster’s act of civil disobedience. As the shut-off valve is located in the same state as Standing Rock, it signified his solidarity with the protest led by Native Americans, which had garnered worldwide attention and support and was eventually brutally put down. Also, the 2,700-mile pipeline terminates in oil-soaked Texas, Foster’s childhood home; his act was a small personal payback for the vast volumes of fossil fuels the state has extracted over the decades and that now choke our atmosphere.
Then there is the matter of Keystone’s source connection to the Alberta Tar Sands, the largest and arguably most destructive enterprise in the history of the world. It is difficult to overstate the sheer scale and madness of the extraction that occurs on the tar sands, requiring wetlands to be drained, rivers to be diverted and immense, carbon-sequestering boreal forests to be removed — all to feed humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels, in an era when many energy alternatives are available to us.
Ultimately, it is the looming crisis posed by a dying planet, the impending end of nature and the natural systems all life depends upon, that is the driving force behind Foster’s actions. “I did it because we are in an emergency,” he told me in a recent phone call. “Time is running out for the planet our kids inherit from us. What matters is transitioning off oil, coal and gas — now! If other people don’t take action, my action makes no difference.”
During the inevitable criminal prosecution that followed, Foster’s lawyer argued a “necessity” defense. This essentially refers to a person who is compelled to commit a crime to prevent a greater harm from occurring due to imminent danger. In Foster’s own words to the court, as no government or corporation was doing something to prevent a global collapse due to climate change, he was obligated to act to protect the air, land and water that future generations would require to survive. It is worth noting that the valve turners gave enough notice of their intentions to the pipeline owners so that the companies could take necessary safety precautions.
The judge did not buy the defense’s reasoning. However, he eventually sentenced Foster to a prison term of three years, lenient in the face of a maximum penalty of 21 years. When he returns to Seattle in August after serving six months, Foster will remain on probation for two and a half more years.
His actions may seem scandalous to some. However, Foster represents a growing number of ordinary global citizens taking personal responsibility for climate change, at great personal risk, because they see it’s the only way to bring attention to the seriousness of our situation. Faced with the threat of human extinction, they say, what else is there to do but break the rules?
As Washington state’s own Governor Jay Inslee said in 2014, “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” Foster doesn’t care if you know his name. But I am certain his will be among those recalled as heroic in 100 years and more, should humanity survive the havoc we have wreaked upon the Earth.
Meanwhile, the simple question Foster has for each of us: “What can you do today?” The individual steps we take to make a difference on climate change, however large or small, make his sacrifice worthwhile.
This essay first appeared in The Olympian newspaper on July 6, 2018.