A group referring to itself as “Climate Direct Action” claimed to have shut down five major cross-border oil pipelines in various states on Tuesday October 11, 2016: Minnesota (Enbridge Lines 4 and 67 near Leonard), Montana (Spectra Energy’s Express Pipeline near Coal Banks Landing), North Dakota (TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline near Walhalla) and Washington State (Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline near Anacortes). Enbridge confirmed that activists with bolt cutters broke into a valve station in Minnesota prompting them to shut down two pipelines as a precautionary measure.  In total, four of the pipelines were temporarily closed and the fifth (Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline) was not in service when activists attempted to turn it off.

The group claims to have focused on manual emergency valves, stating that they “did research to make sure this wouldn’t cause any environmental harm,” that they used emergency valves “because this is a climate emergency,” and that their goal is to “stop extracting oil, coal and gas now,” and to do so through “nonviolent direct action.” One of the activists said that they are “beyond polite conversation” and “must shutdown…the most immediate threats: oil sand fuels and coal.” The activists reportedly left flowers in the valves, called the pipeline operators to inform them of the closed valves, and at least some waited to be arrested. They have also identified themselves and their respective places of residence in the group’s press releases.

In addition to being subject to common law claims—such as trespass, nuisance, burglary and criminal mischief/sabotage—any person who knowingly and willfully damages or even attempts or conspires to damage or destroy an oil or gas pipeline or component may be subject to criminal prosecution under the federal Pipeline Safety Act, with sentencing of up to 20 years in prison and/or significant penalties. 49 U.S.C. § 60123(b). If a death results from such tampering, the individual may be sentenced to life in prison.  Id. Beyond civil and criminal liability, individuals damaging pipeline facilities could be investigated and/or prosecuted under other statutes depending on the circumstances, such as the Patriot Act or the Homeland Security Act for domestic acts of terrorism, as many pipelines have been designated as “critical energy infrastructure.”

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that use of coal in the U.S. as the source for electricity generation has plummeted with consumption having declined by nearly 30% since its peak in 2007, and that both oil and natural gas emit far less carbon and methane than coal. The use of oil in the U.S. has also declined in recent years, while natural gas usage has increased. At the same time, U.S. energy demand overall has declined over the past 6 years, largely due to increased efficiency and conservation efforts. The U.S. does not yet have sufficient infrastructure to provide a majority of U.S. energy needs from renewable sources, and the EIA and many observers note that both natural gas and oil are essential to act as a bridge to increased reliance on non-fossil fuels.

Pipelines are considered to be the safest mode of transportation of oil and gas products, and pipelines carrying oil and gas are necessary to fuel our country’s energy needs and to assist the United States in transitioning to more renewable forms of energy. There is no immediate ability to completely forgo fossil fuels without significant power outages/shortages as well as dramatic lifestyle changes. Opposition to existing pipeline infrastructure and pipeline construction is both unrealistic and short-sighted in terms of meeting this country’s current energy needs and its ability to successfully transition to increased reliance on renewable energy sources. Tampering with existing pipeline infrastructure is also highly dangerous, presenting risks to both the environment and public safety, and illegal. The activists who attempted to shut down the above oil pipelines face felony charges and years in prison. Industry trade group the Association of Oil Pipelines further explained that their actions could have potentially ruptured the pipe and caused a spill.