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Ken Ward: Corbett's judicious lawbreaker
In October 2016, Corbett resident Ken Ward manually shut off a pipeline in Burlington, Wash., carrying crude oil toward refineries.
Police arrested the self-professed "valve turner," who said he was trying to stop climate change conditions that threaten human society. After a first trial ended in a hung jury, a second jury has declared Ward guilty of burglary.
The Outlook sat down with Ward before his sentencing in Skagit County Court, Wash., on Friday, June 23.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Outlook: What inspired you to act?
Ken Ward: It's out of a sense of desperation. I am, for whatever reason, not constitutionally capable of saying, 'Oh well, I can't do anything about it.' I have to try.
It wasn't a very happy decision. This isn't something I want to be doing.
Why break the law? Couldn't you just write a blog or an Op-ed piece?
I did all that stuff. I mean, I've been working on energy policy since 1977 — and we have gone backward. It didn't work.
I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think we were facing a threat to the conditions that make civilization possible.
So how do you shut off an oil pipeline anyhow?
There are these things called safety block valves ... It's a big wheel, and there's a chain around it. I cut the chain around the wheel, closed it, and put some sunflowers on it to encourage them to leave it closed. Pretty much anyone can do it.
Were you caught red-handed?
We produced a seven-minute video of me doing what I did. And the prosecutors showed it as part of the prosecution. There was never any question about the facts of the situation.
Your lawyers used the "necessity defense." How does that work?
It's a legal doctrine. (For example), You're walking down the street and you see a house on fire, and you break into the house to get a kid out, and then they charge you with burglary.
There's another requirement that you have tried all legally available means first, and we have. I've personally been doing that for decades.
Any advice for stopping climate change?
It's incredibly complicated. The problem is not merely that we're burning fossil fuels. The problem is that (we're part of) a society that wants to own a lot of stuff.
The very first thing we're trying to do is make a near-immediate switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but that's sort of obvious. Beyond that, we need to have almost a spiritual change that accepts the ecological limits that we have to operate within.
Speaking of spirituality, you attended seminary in the 2000s. Did your faith inform your actions?
I wasn't moved to take action because of my background or spiritual thinking. But once I decided to take action, I felt like I did it in (the most) spiritual way possible.
What does that mean?
(Acting) without rancor to the police and justice system. We're not challenging the authority of law. We're law-abiding folk.
A new documentary calls you "the reluctant radical." Is that accurate?
I argue with (the director) about that. I'm not a radical. I'm quite conservative.
The people who are spewing all of this stuff into the atmosphere without knowing what's going to happen — that's radical. The conservative thing is not to do it.
How has your family responded to the potential 10-year sentence?
My family is supportive, but, you know, deeply worried.
The Skagit County Jail is a good long ways away from Corbett. Visiting is like a half an hour through a glass window once a week. If and when I am jailed, that will be quite stressful on them.
What consequences do your foresee if the climate continues to warm?
We're going to see desertification of the whole southern part of the country, and people will have to move north.
(We're also seeing) the rapid collapse of the ice shelf in Antarctica, which is already happening. Sea-level rise … is not something that civilization can easily handle. Too many people live too close to the ocean.
Who said you were allowed to change the world?
From the American Revolution through abolition and suffrage and even things like prohibition and civil rights — it's relatively small numbers of people acting decisively, and judiciously breaking the laws, that brought about change.