FORT BENTON – An activist who was trying to call attention to climate change was found guilty of criminal charges on Wednesday for closing a valve last year on a pipeline carrying crude oil from Canada to the United States.
Leonard Higgins, who was charged with trespassing and turning off the valve at the Express Pipe Line in Coal Banks Landing in 2016, has been found guilty on two charges including one felony.
The jury in Fort Benton returned guilty verdicts on Wednesday on charges of criminal trespassing and criminal mischief.
The criminal mischief charge is a felony; the trespassing charge is a misdemeanor.
Sentencing was expected later Wednesday. Higgins faces up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine on the felony criminal mischief charge. Trespassing is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to six months in county jail and a $500 fine.
Higgins entered a fenced site near Big Sandy, Montana, in October 2016 and closed a valve on pipeline operated by Spectra Energy. The pipeline carries oil from Canada’s tar sands region.
Activists simultaneously targeted other pipelines in Washington state, North Dakota and Minnesota.
The protesters called pipeline companies ahead of time to warn about their actions, and workers shut down four of the sites before protesters reached the valves. The pipeline targeted in Washington state was not operating at the time.
Defense attorney Herman Watson argued on Tuesday that the damages done to the pipeline do not add up to $1,500 worth of damage, which is the minimum amount to be charged with a felony.
Watson said, “Criminal trespass is entering property without permission. Mister Higgins has always freely admitted that that is what he’s done, when he entered the pipeline valve site. Criminal mischief is a felony, and it is the state’s job to prove within a reasonable doubt that the damage is greater than $1,500. It’s our position that they can’t do that, and so not guilty is the appropriate plea.”
Higgins, 65, a retired technology worker for the state of Oregon, said before the trial he wanted to tell jurors that his act of civil disobedience was necessary because climate change is an emergency that cannot be ignored.
But District Judge Daniel Boucher said in an April order that testimony on climate change would be irrelevant to the charges. Boucher said he would not allow the trial to be used as a vehicle for political protest.
Jurors heard from three witnesses on Tuesday: two Sheriff’s deputies who responded to the call and a Spectra employee.
Photos of the cut chains and locks that were placed at the valve location were submitted as evidence.
MTN’s David Sherman, Associated Press also contributed to this report.