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Minn. court sides with climate change activists in pipeline case

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Here, a worker lays down pipeline in North Dakota.
Four people who broke into Enbridge Energy property in Minnesota in an effort to stop oil from flowing can argue they needed to shut the pipeline down, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday. Here, a worker lays down pipeline in North Dakota.
Andrew Burton | Getty Images file

Updated: 5:06 p.m. | Posted: 11:08 a.m.

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.

Correction (April, 24, 2018): This story has been updated to correct the identity of the dissenting judge.