Minn. court sides with climate change activists in pipeline case
Elizabeth Dunbar · St. Paul · Apr 23, 2018
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on the side of climate change activists Monday in a case over an oil pipeline protest.The four activists — one from New York and three from Washington — admit they broke into Enbridge Energy property in northwestern Minnesota in an effort to stop oil from flowing through a pipeline.
The activists' case is headed to trial in Clearwater County later this year. They've asked the court if they can use what's known as a "necessity defense" to argue they needed to shut off the flow of oil in order to address climate change.
The judge on their case granted the request. But state prosecutors challenged the decision and the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Feburary. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests in the state, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the prosecutors' argument.
But the state appeals court dismissed the challenge in their ruling Monday, making way for the activists to call experts on global warming to testify during their trial.The activists argue they have exhausted other methods to get their elected officials to adequately address the problem.
"We are left with no other recourse at this point," Annette Klapstein, one of the activists charged, said in an interview Monday after she heard about the ruling."I hope it does mean more civil disobedience, because that's the only thing we have left as ordinary citizens when our political system will not respond to a crisis that is actually threatening the very existence of our grandchildren," she said.
Clearwater County prosecutors and a spokesman for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the ruling. But the chamber expressed concern in the past about the case emboldening other protesters to commit similar crimes.Monday's opinion from the Court of Appeals was not unanimous. Judge Francis Connolly wrote in a dissenting opinion that the necessity defense doesn't apply "because there is no direct, causal connection between respondents' criminal trespass and the prevention of global warming."
"This case is about whether respondents have committed the crimes of damage to property and trespass. It is not about global warming," he wrote.Klapstein said the Minnesota case is not the first example of a judge allowing a necessity defense in the case of climate protests. A judge in Massachusetts dismissed charges against a group of protesters claiming the defense, and a judge in Washington state is allowing the defense to be used in the case of a protester who blocked coal and oil trains.
"We're happy the courts have recognized the urgency of this," she said.'
Did 4 activists need to shut down an oil pipeline? Minn. court will decide
Elizabeth Dunbar · St. Paul · Feb 16, 2018
Nobody's disputing the facts of this case.
Four activists — three from Seattle, one from New York — tried to shut off an Enbridge Energy oil pipeline in northwestern Minnesota's Clearwater County. They even filmed the action.
Then they were arrested.
Depending on how you look at it, these four people were either vandals trespassing on private property, or activists who needed to protect people from climate change.
More than 100 law professors have weighed in on the case via a brief arguing the activists should be able to use a "necessity defense" at trial. That's when someone accused of a crime can say they needed to act as they did, or risk putting themselves or others in harm's way.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Thursday and will rule within 90 days whether the activists may use the necessity defense. Observers on both sides of the case say it could have broad implications in Minnesota and beyond.
Some consider stopping the pipeline to be a form of civil disobedience, not unlike the Civil Rights movement or efforts to give women the right to vote.
"The creation of our country was an act of massive civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is part of this country. It is one of the ways, certainly not the only way, but one of the ways that democracies deal with change," said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who signed the brief.
On Thursday, a lawyer for the activists told the appeals court judges that climate change is an emergency, and that through the coordinated action by activists, 15 percent of the country's oil supply was temporarily stopped.
Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator with MN 350, said other less extreme actions to fight climate change have come up short.
"I think there are enough people that realize that we really are in a place of crisis on climate right now and we don't have as much time as any of us would like."
But those opposing the use of the necessity defense in this case don't buy that argument, including Cam Winton, who represents the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which also filed a brief in the case.
"These admitted vandals and trespassers have these concerns, valid as they may be, about global warming, but chose to manifest them by breaking into a particular pipeline and vandalizing it, which has no impact whatsoever on the thing they claim to care about," he said.
The Chamber is concerned about the case emboldening other activists to commit crimes to further their causes, Winton said. He also reiterated what the Clearwater County prosecutor argued: that a simple trespassing case will become a circus and confuse the jury.
"That's not a function of the court to make decisions about global warming," he said. "That's a question for the Legislature."