BILLINGS — An Oregon man goes on trial in Montana on Tuesday in the latest criminal prosecution against activists who sought to call attention to climate change by shutting down pipelines carrying crude from Canada's oil sands region to the United States.
Leonard Higgins, 65, of Portland is charged with trespassing and felony criminal mischief for breaking into a fenced site near Big Sandy, Montana, to turn off a valve on a Spectra Energy pipeline in October 2016. Activists simultaneously targeted other lines in Washington state, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Higgins, a retired technology worker for the state of Oregon, wants to tell jurors that his act of civil disobedience was necessary because climate change is an emergency that can't be ignored, he told The Associated Press.
But District Judge Daniel Boucher has indicated that he won't allow the trial to be used as a vehicle for political protest. Boucher said in an April order that testimony on climate change would be irrelevant to the charges faced by Higgins.
"The energy policy of the United States is not on trial, nor will this court allow Higgins to attempt to put it on trial," Boucher wrote in the order. "Mr. Higgins is on trial for his voluntary acts."
In a parallel case in Minnesota, two activists last month convinced a state judge to let them present evidence in their upcoming trial that the imminence of climate change justifies extreme action. That's a legal tactic known as a "necessity defense."
"The important thing about a jury trial is a chance to argue about the climate emergency," said Higgins, a former information technology worker for the Oregon state government. "We chose tar sands oil and consider it along with coal to be the dirtiest carbon emitters. They're the ones we should reduce."
Higgins faces up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine if convicted of criminal mischief. The trespassing charge, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of six months in county jail and a $500 fine.
A second man, Reed Ingalls, is awaiting trial on charges that he aided and abetted Higgins by filming his actions and uploading the footage to Higgins' social media account.
The protesters called pipeline company officials ahead of time to warn them about their actions, and workers shut down four of the targeted sites before protesters reached the valves. The pipeline targeted in Washington state wasn't operating at the time of the attempted shutdown.
Spectra Energy is now owned by Enbridge, Inc. Spokesman Michael Barnes said the Calgary, Alberta-based company would not have comment on the case until the trial is underway. It has previously condemned the protests as "dangerous and reckless."
Choteau County Attorney Stephen Gannon also declined comment.