A group of 14 people admitted Monday to trespassing in the Montana Capitol building last summer in protest of coal development in Montana.
They’ll pay fines and get the chance to keep the matter off their records.
But the group, affiliated with the Missoula-based Blue Skies Campaign, said their fight over coal and global warming isn’t over.
“I certainly anticipate that there will be more direct action and more civil disobedience,” Nicholas Engelfried, of Missoula, said outside Municipal Court on Monday morning.
Engelfried, 25, entered his no-contest plea for misdemeanor trespassing before Municipal Judge Bob Wood, along with John Lawrence Ashmore, 70, of Seeley Lake; Margarita McLarty, 68, and Linda Kay Kenoyer, 58, both of Livingston.
Ten others — including author Rick Bass, from Yaak — entered no-contest pleas through their attorney, Robert Gentry, of Missoula. Nine others already pleaded no contest and satisfied the conditions of their deferred sentences.
Wood accepted the terms of a plea agreement and fined each of them $590, with $250 deferred for 90 days. That means each will have to pay $340 within 10 days (or appeal the matter to District Court) and can avoid paying the remainder if they avoid legal problems in that period.
If they violate the conditions, they could face sentences that include jail time.
The 23 were arrested on five different days in August after refusing to leave the Capitol when staff attempted to close the building.
Wood allowed the four in court to speak about the broader issues of coal and climate change that inspired them to protest.
“I believe that Montana right now is at a true crossroads when it comes to our energy issues and we can choose to either accept a future of dirty energy and become a global coal-export resource colony, which is what the world’s largest coal companies would like us to do, or we can embrace a clean energy future, a low-carbon sustainable economy and become a real center of leadership in the economy of the 21st century,” Engelfried said.
“Montana really needs to make this choice … I believe it’s the most important choice we’re going to make for many decades when it comes to how our state operates, what direction we go.”
Kenoyer called climate change, which scientists have linked to the greenhouse gases released by the burning of coal, as the most dire threat humanity has ever faced.
“And the window of time we have to act to stop it is closing,” she said.
Coal company representatives have pointed to the positive economic impact — in wages, tax receipts and more — that would come from increased coal production. The industry has also resisted the growing scientific evidence that greenhouse gases are causing global warning.
The action last summer and the ongoing debate comes as the coal industry is readying itself for massive increases in exports to Asia, through proposed ports on the West Coast, of coal mined in Montana and Wyoming.
The protests addressed coal generally, but focused on the effort of Arch Coal Inc. to develop the Otter Creek tract in the Powder River basin. The state Land Board has approved a lease of the coal to the company, and its application is now before the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, with public comment on an environmental impact statement likely later this year.
The matter will also probably go before the Land Board again, and the protesters said they intend to maintain pressure on both the board and the DEQ.
When they first appeared in court in November, the protesters said they planned to bring to trial “compulsion” or “necessity” defenses. Under Montana law, most otherwise criminal actions are justified if the perpetrator reasonably believes that death or serious bodily harm would otherwise be inflicted.
Some of the group said Monday they would bring high-profile experts in climate change to testify if allowed to launch that defense.
Judge Wood wrote in an April 5 order that he did not doubt the sincerity of the protesters, but agreed with the Helena city attorney and rejected the use of free-speech and compulsion defenses.
“As applied to this case, the fact that the protesters have not been yet successful in the political realm, the court of public opinion or the courts in general does not mean the alternative of violation of law is a new, open option.”
Some of the protesters said it was not clear whether they would appeal Wood’s order to District Court.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086,firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Sanjay on Twitter @IR_SanjayT.