BISMARCK, N.D. – An environmental activist from Seattle was sentenced Tuesday to serve one year in prison for targeting an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Michael Foster, 53, cut through a chain link fence and turned a shut-off valve on the Keystone pipeline in northeastern North Dakota on Oct. 11, 2016. His action was part of a four-state protest to draw attention to climate change and support demonstrations in southern North Dakota against the Dakota Access pipeline.
A Pembina County jury last October convicted Foster of conspiracy, criminal mischief and trespass but acquitted him of reckless endangerment. State District Judge Laurie Fontaine sentenced him in Cavalier on Tuesday to three years in prison with two years suspended, $825 in fees and possible restitution. He’ll be on probation for two years following his time behind bars.
Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, who filmed Foster’s protest, was sentenced Tuesday to two years of probation for conspiracy.
Foster and Jessup were among 11 activists with the group Climate Direct Action who were arrested in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Washington state the day of the protest. The activists broke into private property and turned shut-off valves at five pipelines that moved oil from Canada to the U.S.
Foster said in an interview before his sentencing that he likely would appeal his conviction only if he received “a pretty strict sentence of incarceration,” which he defined as more than five years. He could have been sentenced to as many as 21 years, and Jessup up to 11 years.
Foster noted that the pipeline he targeted leaked an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil in northeastern South Dakota a year later, and he said he’s unsure how successful the coordinated protest was in promoting environmentalists’ message of the dangers of fossil fuels.
“Whether it’s making a difference or not, I wish I could say more than a year later that we could see the ripple effect, but I’m not sure I see that,” he said.
Among the other protesters, Ken Ward, of Corbett, Oregon, was convicted in Washington last June of burglary and sentenced to two days in jail plus community supervision and community service. Leonard Higgins of Portland, Oregon, was convicted in November of criminal mischief and trespassing in Montana and awaits a March 20 sentencing.
The Minnesota cases of Seattle-area residents Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein are ongoing, with a state appeals court weighing a judge’s decision to allow the two women to use the so-called necessity defense. The defense is popular among environmental activists who argue that global warming caused by fossil fuels is a greater harm than their actions calling attention to it, though legal experts say it’s a long-shot defense. The judge didn’t allow it in Foster’s case.
The other arrested activists, like Jessup, were accused of filming the vandalism. Prosecutors dropped charges against two of them in Washington. Trials are pending for two others in Minnesota and one in Montana.
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