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Spinning the wheel: Corvallis 'valve turner' gambles climate protests will pay off

Spinning the wheel: Corvallis 'valve turner' gambles climate protests will pay off

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Leonard Higgins is a foot soldier in the fight against global warming.

In late 2012 he helped launch 350 Corvallis, the local chapter of an international organization that pressures governments to take action on climate change. The following year he was one of about 40,000 people who took part in the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., and that fall he helped lead a demonstration against the Keystone XL oil pipeline at the Corvallis office of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He signed petitions, attended legislative hearings, toted protest signs and reduced his personal carbon footprint. He shackled himself to an 18-wheeler at the Port of Umatilla to halt a drilling equipment “megaload” destined for the Canadian oilfields, fought against the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas terminal in Coos Bay and blockaded railroad tracks in Anacortes, Washington, to prevent oil shipments from reaching refineries there.

None of it worked. Even with Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels continued to stoke the fires of global warming. Higgins watched with a feeling of helplessness as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere soared past the so-called tipping point of 350 parts per million to more than 400 ppm.

“Despite what Obama was saying, we weren’t taking the aggressive action that was needed, and we weren’t taking a leadership role in the world,” he said. “It was obvious that something more needed to be done.”

So Higgins decided to raise the stakes.

On Oct. 11 of last year, in the middle of a hotly contested presidential campaign that did its best to ignore the climate change issue entirely, Higgins was part of a small group of activists who broke into unmanned control stations in four states and temporarily shut off the five main pipelines carrying crude oil to U.S. refineries from the tar sands of Canada.

Like the rest of the “valve turners,” as they’ve come to be known, Higgins understood going in that he would almost certainly do time in prison for his act of climate change resistance. And, like them, he says it’s a price he’s willing to pay.

“It’s really very minor compared to the threat that faces all of us,” he said. “There’s a way worse consequence to standing by and doing nothing.”

An unlikely activist

Higgins doesn’t look like anybody’s idea of an eco-warrior. A soft-spoken 65-year-old with five grown children and two grandkids, he has silver hair, a neatly trimmed beard and scholarly wire-rimmed glasses.

A longtime Corvallis resident, he’s retired now after 31 years in IT project management with a variety of state agencies, including the Employment, Revenue and Human Services departments, the Legislature and the Secretary of State’s Office. A lot of his professional work involved putting government services online. In fact, he’s the reason out-of-work Oregonians no longer have to stand in line to get their unemployment benefits.

As a young man, he says, he bought into the American dream, focused on acquiring the trappings of success: a good job, a nice home, plenty of everything for his family. But in later life he became disillusioned as he began to recognize the economic disparities, social injustice and environmental degradation that went along with his affluent lifestyle.

“I grew up in the Baptist church, and I grew up with a sense of moral responsibility and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others,” he said, noting that was part of what attracted him to a career in public service. “But it got more and more difficult to connect the dots and feel like what I was doing was helping people.”

He was particularly disillusioned with America’s response to global warming. He had hoped to see his country lead the way toward a carbon-free energy future in a repeat of the international cooperation that led to tight restrictions on chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s after scientists discovered CFCs were eating a hole in the ozone layer.

Instead, he says, the United States has shirked its obligations to control greenhouse gas emissions under international climate change treaties and failed to promote alternative energy sources while the burning of coal, oil and natural gas goes on unabated.

After attending a pair of “Work That Reconnects” workshops led by deep ecology guru Joanna Macy, he decided to dedicate himself to climate activism.

But even that proved frustrating as he came to realize that petitions and protests were having little impact on the surging levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been successfully opposing over two dozen large fossil fuel infrastructure projects,” Higgins noted. “But there is still enough fossil fuel infrastructure in use to cook the planet even if we don’t allow any new infrastructure projects to be built.”

Raising the stakes

Those frustrations were a topic of conversation during the run-up to Break Free Pacific Northwest, a massive protest against fossil fuels that brought more than 2,000 climate activists to Anacortes, Washington, in May 2016. It was there, Higgins said, that the valve turner plot was hatched.

While groups of protesters were camping on railroad spurs leading to the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries or paddling their kayaks around March Point, Higgins and his fellow conspirators were working out the details of their plan to shut off the pipelines carrying tar sands oil into the country.

According to Higgins, months of work went into scouting control valve sites, learning how to operate the control mechanisms, determining how to turn them off safely and rehearsing their intricate plan to bring down, if only for a few hours, a sizable segment of the fossil fuel supply chain and focus the attention of a distracted public on the global climate crisis.

On the morning of Oct. 11, five activists and their supporters set to work in a series of carefully choreographed actions.

At 8:30 a.m. Central time, Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein used bolt cutters to shear through the locks at a fenced emergency control valve enclosure for two pipelines near Leonard, Minnesota, and turned the manual control valves to cut the flow of oil through Enbridge Inc.’s Line 4 and Line 67 pipelines.

A half-hour later, the scene was repeated outside Walhalla, North Dakota, where Michael Foster shut down TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone Pipeline, cousin to the controversial Keystone XL.

Fifteen minutes after that, Higgins broke into a fenced enclosure near Coal Banks Landing, Montana, and activated the emergency shutoff for Spectra Energy’s Express Pipeline, and a quarter-hour later Ken Ward completed the mission at an enclosure near Anacortes by spinning the wheel on Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain Pipeline.

In each case, a phone call was placed 15 minutes in advance to the pipeline owner’s emergency response number to give operators time to turn off the pumping stations upstream from the shutoff valve and reduce pressure on the line.

In conjunction with the protest, the activists sent a letter to President Obama asking him to declare a climate emergency and order the pipelines to remain closed. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen, and oil was flowing through the lines again less than 24 hours later.

Still, according to, a website dedicated to direct action on climate change, the valve turners managed to shut off roughly 15 percent of U.S. crude oil imports for the better part of a day.

After closing the valves, the activists locked the wheels in the off position and placed flowers or leaves as a token of respect for the environment, then waited for the authorities while supporters outside the enclosure live-streamed their actions on social media and independent filmmakers videotaped the events.

None of them tried to leave the scene.

“We didn’t want to do that and just run away, like fugitives,” Higgins said.

“We wanted to demonstrate what we believe is the responsibility of all good citizens, what patriotism looks like now.”

Balancing the risks

As you might expect, the fossil fuel industry sees the situation through a much different lens.

Enbridge LLC, which acquired Spectra Energy earlier this year, declined a request for an interview about Higgins’ Oct. 11 shutdown of the Spectra Express pipeline. Instead, the company issued the following statement:

“Every day Enbridge safely and reliably delivers energy that Americans depend on to power their homes and businesses, keeping this country moving forward. The actions taken last year by this individual on our pipeline were unlawful and dangerous. These kinds of tactics can create an environmental incident and put the safety of the public, first responders and our employees at risk. These actions were unacceptable.”

The danger is that too much pressure may be generated within the line, creating the potential of a leak or rupture, according to John Stoody, a spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipelines. That can result in environmental damage or even loss of life, such as a 1999 rupture in Bellingham, Washington, that dumped more than 200,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek and sparked a fire that killed two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man.

When pipeline operators need to halt the flow of liquid petroleum products through the line, they do it in a staged and controlled fashion, gradually slowing the flow to avoid stressing the pipe, Stoody said.

“The uncontrolled shutdown of a pipeline is dangerous not only to the person but is potentially dangerous to the public and surrounding environment,” he said. “Bringing all that mass to an uncontrolled stop puts tremendous amount of pressure on the pipeline, which can cause a rupture.”

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Higgins said the valve turners took those factors into account, choosing isolated control valves away from towns and at least 10 miles downstream from the nearest pumping station and calling ahead to warn the operators about what they were about to do.

“We felt that (the possibility of a rupture) was a very low risk,” he said. “It’s the operations of the pipeline that are truly dangerous. You’re guaranteed spills – that’s part of the operation of the pipeline – and that’s not even addressing the risk of the climate catastrophe we’re heading towards.”

Pleading their case

All five of the activists — along with a number of their supporters and even some of the videographers — were arrested and spent at least one night in jail before being released on bond.

Higgins, Klapstein, Johnston, Foster and Ward are facing felony charges ranging from trespass to sabotage and carrying maximum penalties ranging from 10 to more than 50 years in prison.

That, says Higgins, was always part of the plan.

“The whole commitment to this action was requesting a jury trial and speaking to them, a jury of my peers, and through them to the larger community about the danger we all face,” he said.

The activists are attempting to employ a legal strategy known as the necessity defense, based on the premise that global warming poses such a serious danger that breaking the law to stop it is justified.

“It’s called an affirmative defense,” Higgins said. “It acknowledges that what is charged is true … but it argues that it was necessary to prevent a greater harm.”

The standard analogy is the case of a concerned citizen who forces his way into a burning house to save a child trapped inside and then is charged with breaking and entering.

“In this instance,” Higgins said, “the threat is to billions of children around the planet, and there isn’t any (legal) way for us billions of ordinary citizens to save our kids and our neighbors’ kids.”

Higgins’ attorney, Herman Watson IV, filed a brief that described the valve turners’ action as “part of a necessary escalation by American citizens to protect themselves and their children due to state and federal governments’ failure to act” and requested that he be allowed to present a necessity defense at trial.

The court isn’t buying it.

Judge Daniel Boucher, who is presiding over the case in Montana’s 12th Judicial District, issued a short but sharply worded rejection last month.

“It is clear from his memorandum that Higgins expects to attract publicity through his trial, and in turn, to place U.S. energy policy on trial,” Boucher wrote. “Higgins is mistaken in both attempts.”

Laws regarding the necessity defense vary from state to state, but in general it must meet four criteria to be admitted in court:

• The defendant faced an imminent danger.

• The defendant took action to prevent the danger through less harmful means.

• The defendant reasonably anticipated that the action would prevent the danger.

• The defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to the action.

Boucher ruled Watson’s failed to show that Higgins’ case met the tests to present a necessity defense under Montana law. But the Climate Defense Project, a nonprofit law firm that is providing legal support for the valve turners, plans to appeal that decision.

“If there has ever been a political problem that seems to fit within the contours of the necessity defense, climate change is it,” said Kelsey Skaggs, the group’s executive director.

“Civil disobedience is necessary in these cases because there are no alternatives available. The existing structures, the political and democratic structures we have in place, have not been able to respond effectively to climate change.”

Climate activists have attempted to employ the necessity defense in nine cases around the United States. To date only one judge has allowed it, but that 2014 case (which involved valve turner defendant Ken Ward) was dropped by a sympathetic prosecutor before it went to trial.

Waiting game

Now that Judge Boucher has denied a hearing on Higgins’ request to employ a necessity defense, his next court appearance is scheduled for July 18 and 19, when his case is set for trial in Fort Benton, Montana.

He is charged with two crimes: criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, and a felony count of criminal mischief. The second charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in the state prison at Deer Lodge.

Based on sentences handed down in similar cases, Higgins doesn’t expect to do more than a year or two behind bars. But the judge may have other ideas. In any case, the Montana State Prison is no joke. It houses nearly 1,500 inmates in multiple security levels, including the state’s most violent offenders.

As he awaits his fate, Higgins has been spending a lot of time on the road. He moved from Corvallis to Eugene in 2012, and he recently purchased a converted cargo van that now serves as his home.

He’s been traveling a lot to visit friends, see his children and grandchildren or run up to Washington to support fellow activist Ken Ward, the first of the valve turners to go on trial.

He’s also been spending a lot of time with partner Angela van Patten, a fellow climate activist who lives in Portland. The two became acquainted through van Patten’s daughter, who served as Higgins’ jail support after his arrest at the Umatilla megaload protest.

Although she realized he was planning some sort of direct action last fall, she wasn’t aware of the details until after his arrest.

“I asked not to know everything he was doing,” she said.

And while she’s upset at the prospect that Higgins could be sent to prison for his actions, she respects what he did and his reasons for doing it.

“I’d seen Leonard’s intensity, his commitment — they’re both pretty consistent and pretty remarkable,” she said.

“We’ll figure out a way to work with it and live with it if he does get sentenced.”

Higgins could potentially lessen his sentence or even avoid incarceration altogether by taking a plea deal, but like the other valve turner defendants he’s refusing to consider that option.

They did what they did to make a political point, and they want to make sure the public understands the reason for their actions.

“I think seeing individuals actually willing to go to prison on this issue gives a little more leverage to people like ourselves,” Higgins said. “If people don’t see others acting as though there’s an emergency, they don’t believe there is one.”

For Higgins, it keeps coming back to the responsibility he feels for future generations – to his own children and grandchildren.

“In the same way I couldn’t live with myself as a parent if I didn’t do everything I could if one of my kids needed help, I can’t live with myself not doing everything I can to halt climate change and knowing what I know,” he said.

“This is something that gives my life meaning.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.


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