Montana pipeline protester avoids jail, must pay restitution

An Oregon climate change activist, who was convicted of illegally shutting down a crude oil pipeline as part of a multi-state protest, avoided jail time and was ordered to pay $3,775 in restitution by a Montana judge on Tuesday.

State District Judge Daniel Boucher noted that defendant Leonard Higgins had no prior serious convictions as he handed down a three-year deferred sentence, said court clerk Rick Cook.

Higgins entered a fenced site near Big Sandy, Montana, in October 2016 and closed a valve on pipeline operated by Spectra Energy, now part of Texas-based Enbridge Energy. The pipeline carries oil from Canada's tar sands region.

Activists simultaneously targeted other pipelines in Washington state, North Dakota and Minnesota, using civil disobedience to urge a halt to the use of tar sands crude — the most carbon-intensive, climate damaging form of oil.

The resulting arrests bolstered calls in some states for tougher penalties against individuals who interfere with oil and gas shipments.

Environmentalists and scientists say tar sands crude could exacerbate climate change due to the carbon dioxide released when it's burned.

Higgins, who faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, said he went into the courtroom Tuesday morning expecting to be jailed.

"I'm bewildered," he told The Associated Press after his sentencing. "I came into court today with only my driver's license, my health insurance card and money to put in the jail commissary account."

Enbridge had claimed Higgins actions caused the company more than $25,000 in damage. Prosecutor Stephen Gannon asked for a 10 year sentence with all but 60 days suspended on the felony charge, Cook said.

An Enbridge spokesman said in an emailed statement that the company respected the court's decision.

"It is our intention to donate any court-ordered payment in this case to local area first responders," Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes said. "We believe it's important to support the people who everyday focus on the safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment."

During his trial last year, Higgins was blocked by Boucher from arguing in court that his act of civil disobedience was necessary because climate change is an emergency that cannot be ignored.

His record will be cleared of the felony criminal mischief conviction if he doesn't violate the terms of Tuesday's sentence, such as by committing another offense.

Among prosecutions of activists elsewhere who sought to shut down pipelines:

A state appeals court in Minnesota is weighing a request by two Seattle-area residents, Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, to use the "necessity defense" of climate change.

In North Dakota, Michael Foster was sentenced to one year in prison for conspiracy, criminal mischief and trespass. Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, who filmed Foster's protest, was sentenced to two years of probation for conspiracy.

In Washington state, Ken Ward, of Corbett, Oregon, was convicted last June of burglary and sentenced to two days in jail plus community supervision and community service.

Ward and Foster have pending appeals.

Others were arrested, like Jessup, for filming the vandalism. Prosecutors dropped charges against two of them in Washington. Trials are pending for two others in Minnesota and one in Montana.