Trial starts for climate protesters in Trump, pipeline country

A pipe-laying construction worker
Four people who broke into Enbridge Energy property in Minnesota in an effort to stop oil from flowing argue they needed to shut the pipeline down. Here, a worker lays down pipeline in North Dakota.
Andrew Burton | Getty Images

Clearwater County voters look like they might be a tough crowd to pick a jury from if you're trying to argue that you shouldn't go to jail for shutting down an oil pipeline to protest climate change. Oil pipelines snake through the area and provide jobs. President Trump, who has denounced climate change as a "hoax," trounced Hilary Clinton here in the 2016 presidential election.

Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein and Ben Joldersma face felony charges stemming from the 2016 attempt to shut down two Enbridge oil pipelines in Clearwater County.

The court has allowed them to present a necessity defense and argue that their actions were justified to prevent greater harm from global warming.

Among the initial jury pool of some 30 people, many had connections to the area's pipeline industry.

And most people were at least somewhat familiar with the case. One woman, whose husband works for Enbridge, said she doubted she could be fair and impartial, given the dangers of the industry and the injuries that could have happened to her husband as a result of the shutdown.

Another man who worked for the state office of pipeline safety said he didn't think he could be fair and impartial.

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So did two other people who had family members who worked for pipeline companies. One woman, who has two adult children who do welding work on pipelines said, "I don't think I could be fair to both sides ... [It] would be really difficult for me as a mom," she said, adding, "it's a dangerous business."

Defense attorney Lauren Regan explained that the defendants committed an act of civil disobedience — they broke the law for what they believe is a greater good. She asked prospective jurors their views on climate change.

The first two jurors were categorical. "I believe there is no global warming," said the first woman. The second agreed. She said some years are warmer, some colder, some drier, some wetter. "They can't tell you where a hurricane is going to hit, but they can tell you the climate 50 years from now?"

But then the third juror said she believes there is global warming occurring. So did a fourth, and one more.

Other people weren't sure. One person said he believed in climate change, but he wouldn't blame it all on fossil fuels. Another said he gives it some credence but is reluctant to believe everything that's said. A third did not believe in it, saying climate records don't go back far enough to know definitively.

Four people said they didn't think they could be fair toward the defendants. Their minds were made up — not just because they don't believe in climate change, but because they believed the defendants jeopardized other people by shutting down the lines.

"I have a hard time ... when we're the people who would have been injured because of their beliefs. People can have beliefs, but they shouldn't do it at the expense of others," said one.

When an attorney asked, "do you ever think it may be OK to violate law for a moral belief?" there was a chorus of "Nos" from the prospective jurors — except for a couple who said it depended on circumstances.

Toward the end of the morning session the court heard from a farmer with pipelines running across his land. He cited a litany of evidence for global warming. He talked about how carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, has risen from 280 to over 400 parts per million in the atmosphere.

"The evidence is pretty indisputable that it's related to human activity," he said.

The farmer, who said he got a degree in soil science at North Dakota State University, said he doesn't understand how people can go to doctors and trust what they say, but view climate change as a matter of politics, not science. And he pointed out the Boston Tea Party was also an act of civil disobedience.

He indicated he could be fair-minded if eventually seated, but noted he has plenty of other things he could be doing rather than sitting on a jury.

Whoever winds up on the jury, they appear unlikely to hear expert testimony about climate change the defense wants to present. Just last Wednesday judge Robert Tiffany said expert witnesses for the defense can't testify specifically about climate change, or global warming, because it could confuse the jury.

The ruling said expert witness testimony about the effects of climate change would not help jurors reach a verdict. Citing precedent, Tiffany wrote, "the effects of climate change, in particular in Minnesota, are 'within the knowledge and experience of a lay jury and the testimony of the expert[s] will not add to the precision or depth of the jury's ability to reach conclusions' about climate change."

The defendants themselves can still make arguments about climate change and why they felt they had no choice but to resort to civil disobedience.

And the defense attorneys are still planning on calling some of their well-known expert witnesses, including journalist Bill McKibben and former NASA Scientist James Hansen. But it's clear Tiffany's ruling was a blow.

They asked the judge to reconsider the decision saying it "eviscerates" their defense. He denied the request.