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Did 4 activists need to shut down an oil pipeline? Minn. court will decide

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Construction area fenced off for an Enbridge pipeline build
Here, a construction area for Enbridge Energy's Line 3 oil pipeline is fenced off near Superior, Wis.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

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."