Where does activism end and terrorism begin? Four activists targeted an Enbridge oil pipeline in northern Minnesota in February. Concerned that fossil fuels damage the environment, the four broke through a safety fence and attempted to turn off a main pipeline valve. They were arrested.
The pipeline company says the so-called “valve turners” are dangerous to themselves and the public. Many energy industry officials want them to be treated as domestic terrorists. Several states are considering increasing fines and prison terms for such incidents. They are also seeking to hold organizations associated with such protests accountable.
Activism is support in the form of action for or against one side of a controversial issue. Terrorism occurs when actions cause fear or extreme uncertainty, with the intention of disrupting a way of life. Terrorism often but not always includes the use of violence.
Sometimes the line between activism and terrorism gets blurred. Laws try to sort out the difference so that free people can voice protest or support causes they believe in—but never use that freedom to harm others or make them live in fear.
Alan Olson is executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association. He compares valve-turning to “a number of years ago when environmental groups were spiking trees to interfere with the timber industry.”
Spiking was intended to deter loggers by making them fearful of hitting a hidden spike. In one case, a sawmill worker was badly injured from a spike in the wood he was processing.
No injuries have been reported as a result of the valve-turners’ actions. But Olson and others in the industry believe they could occur.
Michael Foster is an activist and mental health counselor from Seattle. He is so convinced that the environment is critically endangered, he continues to act disruptively. Foster served six months in jail for turning a pipeline shut-off valve in North Dakota in 2016. He believes the world is approaching a “life or death moment” without a sovereign God maintaining its existence. Therefore, Foster believes interfering with infrastructure is necessary. “We’ve run out of time,” he says, to seek progress by normal methods. Those might include teaching, conserving, and lobbying for government support.
Federal regulators issued a warning that tampering with pipeline valves can result in “death, injury, and economic and environmental harm.” Turning off a valve for an actively flowing pipeline not only causes inconvenience. It could create an oil spill.
A pro-pipeline coalition spokesperson says “eco-extremists . . . risk seriously harming the same environment that they claim to be trying to protect.”