Leonard Higgins will get his day in court next week.
The 65-year-old former Corvallis resident goes on trial starting Tuesday in a Montana courtroom for his role in a climate change protest that grabbed headlines last year for briefly cutting off the flow of crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in the United States.
Higgins was one of five activists who took part in a coordinated action on Oct. 11, 2016, to close emergency shutoff valves on five pipelines in four states to focus attention on what they see as an urgent need to curb global warming by halting the use of fossil fuels.
All five of the “valve turners” were charged with felonies in the states where the protests took place. Several other individuals who either videotaped their actions or acted in support roles also were charged (see sidebar with this story).
Higgins faces a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass and a felony charge of criminal mischief for closing an emergency shutoff valve on the Spectra Energy (now Enbridge Corp.) Express Pipeline in a remote part of Chouteau County, Montana. A conviction on the more serious offense could bring a penalty of up to 10 years in the state prison at Deer Lodge.
None of the valve turners attempted to leave the scene or avoid prosecution for their actions. Instead, each waited patiently to be arrested and then requested a jury trial as a platform to air their views on climate change.
“The whole action was focused on communicating the emergency that we’re in and the failure of government and business to respond,” Higgins said, “and the fact that even though we’re beginning to turn the tide, it’s woefully inadequate to protect ourselves, and certainly our children, from climate change.”
Higgins will be represented in the case by two pro bono attorneys, Herman Watson IV of the Watson Law Office in Bozeman, Montana, and Lauren Regan of the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center.
Chouteau County Attorney Steven Gannon is prosecuting the case.
Watson said he’s not used to representing a defendant like Higgins.
“Most people come into my office saying, ‘I want to beat these charges’ or ‘I’m not guilty.’ Leonard came to me with, ‘Here is what happened and here’s why I did it,'" Watson said.
“I’m excited for Leonard to have the chance to tell his story, which is what this trial is all about.”
That being said, Watson added that he intends to vigorously contest the criminal mischief charge against his client. For the offense to qualify as a felony under Montana law, the prosecution has to show that Higgins caused damage worth more than $1,500.
“I believe in the merits of our case and the defense we’ve prepared, regardless of the symbolic outcome I think Leonard is seeking,” Watson said.
“It’s something I feel very confident presenting to a jury.”
If Higgins is convicted on the felony charge, however, he insists that he’s prepared to serve his sentence.
“I’ve talked to my loved ones about the possibility of that,” said Higgins, who has five grown children and two grandchildren. “I’ve tried to explain why I think it’s important — and more important than my freedom.”
Higgins had hoped to be able to use the necessity defense in his Montana trial, which would have allowed him to argue that his illegal acts were necessary to prevent greater harm from climate change, but the judge in his case refused to allow it.
On Saturday, however, he’ll get the chance to present that argument in a mock trial on the University of Montana campus in Missoula. Expert witnesses he had hoped to call in his defense, including Tom Hastings from Portland State University and the University of Montana’s Steve Running, will speak at the event, where the audience will be asked to act as the jury.
Higgins was recently convicted of trespassing in another case stemming from a climate change protest last year in Anacortes, Washington, where he was fined $250 and ordered to perform eight hours of community service. Despite the outcome, he considers that case a victory for his activism.
“What was remarkable was that the judge complimented and praised our efforts in regard to climate change,” Higgins said. “I think we changed some people’s minds.”