Rejoice! The Day after Earth Day, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the ruling allowing Annette Klapstein, Emily Johnston, Ben Joldersma, and Steve Liptay to argue that shutting down two tar sands pipelines was necessary to prevent the greater harm of climate catastrophe. We can expect a court date soon, and are beginning preparations for this historical battle. Click here to donate to the necessity defense finally being presented on climate in an American court.
The importance of this case goes well beyond justice for the defendants. It forces a public, evidence-based process of deliberation on the climate crisis, and the lack of response to it, within a formal institution of the United States government. Fossil fuel money has proven an insurmountable barrier to policymakers addressing climate, but the courts, with their emphasis on evidence and expert testimony, are uniquely capable of engaging with science.
The legal system is often where we see the work of direct action movements translate into institutional gains, from Brown vs. Board of Education ending segregated schooling in America to rulings on federal lands logging allowing weary blockaders to go home. We are losing on climate everywhere else in the political system, but Shut It Down is just one of many complementary strategies seeing fundamental gains in court. New York City and Massachusetts’ lawsuits against fossil fuel corporations threaten the social legitimacy of ending life on earth as a business model, while the landmark federal and state lawsuits brought by Our Children’s Trust raise the prospect of court-ordered climate plans.
If you attended or watched Leonard’s mock trial in Missoula, MT, where we heard testimony from climate scientists, national security experts, and political scientists alike, you have a sense of the material we will try to cover in court. We can’t just make the case to a jury of our peers that climate change is a real catastrophe. We also need to prove the system isn’t responding, and perhaps most difficult of all, we need to convince people that when the system is broken, people’s actions can be impactful. In other words, we need to transcend the cultural and political divide on climate, and then we still need to overcome people’s cynicism.
It won’t be easy, but much like shutting off the tar sands in the first place, we’ll do it because it’s, well, a necessity. And because you gave us enough money to get to Minnesota, and bring lots of political scientists, climate experts, and media along with us.
Climate activist, author and a potential expert witness in the Minnesota trial Bill McKibben said, "The whole planet will be inside a single courtroom the day this trial begins -- it's a rare chance to explain precisely why we need to act, and act now.”
Preeminent climate scientist Dr. James Hansen is also expected to testify in support of the Minnesota defendants. In a brief submitted to Minnesota’s Ninth District Court, Dr. Hansen outlined testimony he expects to offer: “It is my expert opinion that global warming from persistent high fossil fuel emissions is in the danger zone, that CO2 emissions from all such sources must be reduced with all deliberate speed, that the situation is becoming worse with each passing day, and that we are likely approaching climate tipping points from which there is no reasonable prospect of return….[The] defendants by their actions, as I understand them, aimed to prevent the urgent and growing danger, and to turn around the government’s failure to date meaningfully to address it.”
See the full press release here.
Today in Fort Benton, Montana, Leonard Higgins was given a deferred sentence of three years for shutting down the Spectra Express pipeline, meaning he is on probation for three years and can be incarcerated if he violates it. If he does not, the conviction will be removed from his record; this, the judge said, was due to the nature of his offense, selfless and nonviolent. He will pay approximately $4,000 in restitution and other court imposed fees. This isn’t justice. Justice would have been the necessity defense and a full vindication, which Leonard will continue to seek in his appeal. This is quasi-justice, but quasi-justice without incarceration feels pretty good.
The journey from action planning to valve turning to legal aftermath has been emotionally charged throughout, and having dinner with Leonard, friends and family tonight was one of the most potent times we’ve shared so far.
Leonard remaining free makes the injustice of Michael Foster’s imprisonment in North Dakota sting sharper. Before Michael shut down Keystone, he helped organize Washington youth to sue for action on climate, the state version of landmark federal litigation brought by Our Children’s Trust currently making its way through the courts. The judge in Washington issued the first ever ruling ordering an agency to cap and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In the subsequent years, Governor Jay Inslee, the ostensible climate governor, has failed to do anything of the sort. Youth involved in the litigation all over the country are gearing up for a day of action, and if you want to support Michael, there’s probably no better way than to help youth take action to make their voice heard in court. For more details about how to help contact Sue Lenander.
Michael sentenced to 3 years, 2 deferred and taken immediately into custody.
Today Michael Foster was sentenced to three years in prison, two deferred and taken directly into custody. Sam Jessup was sentenced to two years, both deferred with supervised probation.
Reacting to the sentence, Foster said, “It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting in jail. What matters is stopping the pollution. If other people don’t take action, mine makes no difference. And if they don’t, the planet comes apart at the seams.The only way what I did matters is if people are stopping the poison.”
At the hearing today, Assistant to the State's Attorney Jonathon Byers pressed the judge for significant penalties to deter future actions, asking the court to "send a message" by sentencing Michael and Sam to five years each, three and four years of those sentences suspended, respectively. The prosecution then bizarrely claimed that the action might have been justified if it would have really made a difference.
Michael's lawyer stated that he initially approached this case in purely legal terms but has come to see the validity of the cause and truly fears for his grandchildren. Michael ended his statement to Judge Fontaine by saying, "My single life isn't worth more than all life to come."
Judge Fontaine acknowledged how unusual the case is and says she spent many hours thinking about the sentence, weighing most heavily the likelihood that Michael would act again. She acknowledged the seriousness of climate change and says that North Dakotan culture *is* about taking care of the land. She went on to say the criteria for the necessity defense was not met, claiming that the action was not effective in preventing harm and that legal alternatives exist to address climate change. The judge suggested a “marketing campaign” to better communicate the dangers of climate change.
This morning in an interview with local press, Michael said resolutely, “I made a decision to commit civil disobedience to defend my family tree and yours, knowing that there is no government, no politician, no corporation, on planet right now, putting forward a plan to defend life as we know it. My kids and yours won’t survive this mess if we don’t clean up all this.”
Michael's attorney Mr. Hoffman and Michael's sweetheart Sue Lenander explain the specifics of sentencing and opportunities for appeal.
Valve Turner Michael Foster committed no crime. "The crime that was committed that day was when the oil company turned the pipeline back on".
By Kathleen Dean Moore
The morning of October 11, 2016, was chilly on the northern plains. Low sun glinted on prairie grasses and on the emergency turn-off valves of the five pipelines that burrowed from Canadian tar-sands oil fields into Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington. At 8:30 a.m., people wearing hard hats and yellow safety vests approached each of the pipelines. With bolt cutters, they let themselves into hurricane-fence enclosures. In several locations, one person videotaped the action while another cut the chains that immobilized the valves. These people, men and women, were not burly roustabouts; several were decades past middle age. It took all the strength they had to crank the heavy wheels on the valves. But when they had closed the valves on all five pipelines, the entire flow of crude oil from Canadian tar sands came to a stop.
The shutdown was an act of moral necessity, the Valve Turners explained. Global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is a desperate emergency, so shutting the emergency valves was exactly the right response—an act of sanity in a dangerously surreal world.
I shut down an oil pipeline – because climate change is a ticking bomb
Normal methods of political action and protest are simply not working. If we don’t reduce emissions boldly and fast, that’s genocide
A little over a year ago, four friends and I shut down all five pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil into the United States by using emergency shut-off valves. As recent months have made clear, climate change is not only an imminent threat; it is an existing catastrophe. It’s going to get worse, and tar sands oil—the dirtiest oil on Earth—is one of the reasons.
We did this very, very carefully—after talking to pipeline engineers, and doing our own research. Before we touched a thing, we called the pipeline companies twice to warn them, and let them turn off the pipelines themselves if they thought that was better; all of them did so.
We knew we were at risk for years in prison. But the nation needs to wake up now to what’s coming our way if we don’t reduce emissions boldly and fast; business as usual is now genocidal.Read more
BARRED FROM DISCUSSING CLIMATE CHANGE IN COURT, CLIMATE ACTIVIST LEONARD HIGGINS GETS FELONY CONVICTION FOR SHUTTING OFF A TAR SANDS PIPELINE
[Fort Benton, Montana – November 22, 2017] In a remarkably short trial in Montana’s Chouteau County District Court lasting just a day and a half, the jury found Leonard Higgins, a retired Oregon state worker turned climate activist who shut off a tar sands pipeline to fight climate change, guilty of felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass. The conviction carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in jail and fines of up to $50,000. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for January 2, 2018.
Higgins openly admits that on October 11, 2016, he cut two chains to enter a fenced enclosure around the Enbridge (formerly Spectra) tar sands pipeline in Coal Banks Landing, Montana, and turned the emergency shutoff valve. In fact, he and others called the company to alert them to obviate any safety problems, and a supporter filmed and livestreamed the action, after which they both waited to be arrested.
The case made national news. Higgins’ action was part of a coordinated effort that simultaneously shut off tar sands pipelines in four states, temporarily halting all flow into the US of tar sands, which is the most carbon-intensive and climate damaging form of oil. In addition to being prosecuted in state court, Higgins and his fellow “valve turners” were recently the target of a letter signed by 84 members of Congress to the Justice Department, asking pointedly why it hadn’t also prosecuted them under federal law, and whether their actions met the definition of domestic terrorism under the Patriot Act. Earlier this month Reuters reported the letter and the Justice Department’s response “could escalate tensions between climate activists and the [Trump] administration.”
Michael spoke at University Unitarian Church, Seattle, on November 26th, 2017
What would you do if you knew that all life to come depends on your action today? Because it does.
One year ago I stood here with the Plant-for-the-Planet kids, thanking you for sharing a generous Sunday plate collection. Those are the kids who are suing the government — the State of Washington and federal government — for a climate plan to preserve
Three days before his trial begins in Fort Benton, Leonard Higgins presented his full climate necessity defense, with real expert witnesses, an acting judge, prosecutor and lawyers in front of a live audience at the University of Montana in Missoula on Saturday November 18th. Here is Leonard's testimony from the 'stand' that night. You can watch the full stream of the Mock Trial here.