Nov 23, 2017
FORT BENTON — Leonard Higgins, charged with tampering with an oil pipeline in Montana last year following a four-state climate change demonstration, was found guilty Wednesday by a Chouteau County jury of trespassing and criminal mischief.
The jury, which got the case at 11:15 a.m., returned an hour later with the verdict, which also included the conclusion that Higgins caused more than $1,500 in damage.
District Judge Daniel Boucher set sentencing for Jan. 2.
Following the verdict, Higgins, of Portland, said he was disappointed Boucher did not allow his defense team to present a so-called “necessity” defense in which he would have argued he committed a lesser harm because of an imminent greater harm, in this case climate change.
Had that climate change defense been allowed, Higgins said, the outcome may have been different.
“It was really frustrating not to be able to talk about climate in the courthouse,” Higgins said.
The charges stemmed from Higgins turning off an oil pipeline valve in 2016 located north of the Missouri River in Chouteau County 75 miles northeast of Great Falls as part of a coordinated, four-state effort to raise awareness about climate change.
His trial began Tuesday and the case was given to jurors for deliberation late Wednesday morning.
“This is not about climate change,” Chouteau County Attorney Steven Gannon told jurors during closing arguments.
During cross examination, Gannon also questioned the relevance of Higgins’ testimony about his Oregon childhood, work life, family, church involvement and how he got involved in the issue of climate change to the charges of trespassing and criminal mischief case in Montana.
His objections were sustained by Boucher.
Herman Watson IV, Higgins’ attorney, said the background was important to explain Higgins’ intent.
Higgins, 65, dressed in a sports coat and collared shirt, looked more like a college professor or grandpa than an "eco-terrorist," as one oil and gas group called him following the Oct. 11, 2016 incident.
When he testified Wednesday morning, he still managed to discuss climate change in between objections.
Leonard Higgins receives a hug following his two-day trial in Chouteau County. (Photo: Karl Puckett)
He described himself as a church-going family man whose roots are in agriculture and he recalled picking beans growing up in Oregon.
Later in life, he got sucked into pursuing the American Dream, he said.
He grew up in Corvallis, Ore., but now lives in Portland.
Then, after soul-searching following his mother’s death and retirement in 2010, he began to consider more serious issues, including climate change.
It is his responsibility to stand up and do what is right, he said.
“Sometimes what’s right isn’t necessarily what’s legal,” Higgins said. “It was a really hard conclusion to come to.”
He read a report by a climate scientist that spurred him to action.
“In short it explains both why we have global warning, what the science is behind that and what will happen to not so much me but my kids and grandkids if we don’t do something about it,” Higgins said.
He got involved with a group at his church that worked on climate change.
Members of a church group decided elevate their efforts after community outreach had little influence on public policy.
“In our country we have a tradition of civil disobedience,” Higgins said. “Our founders left power in our hands as citizens.”
The group researched how they could conduct civil disobedience on large enough scale to make a difference. They turned their focus to oil pipelines transporting heavy crude from the oil sands in Canada, and decided to act during the presidential election by attempting to briefly stop all “tar sands oil” coming into the United States.
Five pipeline sections were targeted Oct. 11, 2016, in North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Minnesota (2).
“And I closed the valve in Montana,” Higgins said.
Two calls were made to companies operating the pipelines before the activists turned up to turn the valves, he said.
A person on each scene also live-streamed the activity so the companies could see they were on the locations, Higgins said.
By the time Higgins arrived at the Montana site near Coal Banks Landing north of the Missouri River, the flow of oil had been shut off, Higgins said.
He also put a chain on the main valve with leaves and flowers in it to represent the group’s goal of transitioning to alternative energy.
The entire act was symbolic to try to bring attention to climate change, Higgins said.
He was prepared to get arrested, and wanted to use the attention to talk about climate change, he said.
The five people involved in the four states were older professionals, he said. They thought their willingness to risk their freedom would more clearly demonstrate the severity of the problem climate changes poses more than just presenting facts, Higgins said.
Higgins said he accidentally broke the valve actuator, the mechanism for opening and closing a valve. The cost was $838. Cutting chains to access the site cost another $100.
Gannon, the Chouteau County attorney, questioned Higgins about the planning of the valve turning operation in the four states including who was involved.
“I was part of the team, we scouted along the pipelines as part of our safety plan,” Higgins said.
He asked for the names of other people who did research.
Higgens [sic] declined.
Gannon said it was a well thought-out operation.
“This isn’t a conspiracy charge,” said Watson, the defense attorney, in his objection.
Judge Boucher asked Gannon his purpose in digging up the names.
“I want to know who they were,” Gannon said. “And I want to know what they helped him plan to do.”
Higgins said the researchers also looked at coal and oil trains before deciding to target oil pipelines.
The judge and Higgins' attorneys disagreed on the relevance of climate change and the use of the "lesser harm," or necessity defense, and whether climate change is an imminent threat to Higgins.
Addressing Higgins, Boucher said, I think your testimony was you did this not for you but for your children and grandchildren?
Higgins said that was correct.
So at what point did Higgins feel he himself was threatened by Enbridge, the pipeline owner? the judge asked.
Higgins replied that his well-being depends on the well-being of his children.
The judge said he denied the motion to allow the necessity defense because Higgins said he took the action at the pipeline for his kids and grandchildren. Case law is clear, he said, that there has to be a threat of injury or death to the defendant to use that defense. He found no imminent harm or threat of death to Higgins, he said.
Lauren Regan, another attorney for Higgins, said the immediate harm is catastrophic climate change in the form of rising temperatures and sea levels, which are occurring now. “That’s the imminent harm,” Regan said.
During his closing argument, Gannon, the county attorney, said the case isn’t about Higgins being a nice guy. “It’s about what he did that day,” he said.
Higgins admitted to trespassing and cutting the chains to get into the fenced area around the pipeline valve area, he noted.
Damage, the cost of the time of the employees who responded and the shutdown of the pipeline for 5.5 hours is well in excess of $1,500, he said. Enbridge is in the business of moving oil, he said.
“And when a pipeline isn’t working they are not making money,” Gannon said.
Watson, the defense attorney, said the cost of damage to the valve actuator and three chains that were cut was $938 and that was the only damage.
A report on the incident in the Federal Register, he noted, said there were no injuries or damage to the pipeline. The actions taken by Higgins, he said, was [sic] “safe and harmless.”
“We didn’t hear about any oil damages,” he said.
Gannon, who got the last word, said the incident wasn’t a voluntary shutdown by the company as described but rather a forced, emergency shutdown.
“It was Mr. Higgins who did it,” Gannon said.
All of the cases in the four states have now been resolved except in Minnesota, Higgins said.
As he spoke, a few dozen of his supporters from Oregon and Washington sang spiritual songs in the same courtroom where attorneys had been arguing moments before.
“I love all of you,” Higgins said, “and thank you for coming.”