By Emily Bowers:
On a clear evening in southeast Utah, when the sun has just disappeared from sight, the sky holds a deep azure that intensifies from horizon to troposphere. The sand and rock substrates, typically awash in dull shades of sandy tones, pulsate deep hues of red and orange. Green desert shrubs speckle the landscape.
The vibrancy and juxtaposition of these complementary colors may defy one’s notion of desert: this is not a barren landscape. The expansive openness is a visual reprieve from the commercialized clutter of our developed city centers. The open space facilitates a smooth transition to a quiet mind.
Southeast Utah is home to Canyonlands National Park, which is about 50 miles southwest of Moab. Arches National Park is less than 20 miles to the north of the same city. On December 19, 2008, the Bureau of Land Management convened an auction to lease parcels of land in this territory to the highest bidding natural gas and oil companies. Eight of these parcels were next to Arches and Canyonlands.
On the day of the auction, a 27 year-old economics student from the University of Utah named Tim DeChristopher sat in the audience holding bidding paddle number 70. He wore a long-sleeved red shirt, had a shaved head and a couple days worth of growth on his chin. He had just taken his last exam of the fall semester in a class titled “Current Economic Problems.”
DeChristopher, in an post-auction interview with the Solve Climate News Group, remembered the auction as “cold.” There were no pictures or descriptions of the beautiful places the parcel numbers represented, there were only numbers.
Parcel 163 goes to bidder number 51 for $10.50/acre.
Parcel 164 goes to bidder number 25 for $7.50/acre.
In a fitting touch of irony, the last question on the final exam for DeChristopher’s economics class asked whether the parcels being auctioned that day were accurately priced according to the social and environmental externalities of oil and gas exploration activities. DeChristopher answered “no.”
Initially he just bid to raise the prices, feeling empowered that he had cost oil and gas companies thousands of dollars in a few minutes. About halfway through the auction, DeChristopher started winning parcels. Empowered with a few initial wins, he kept his paddle up, winning a total of 14 parcels, many in a row, worth about $1.8 million.
At this time, some of the other bidders expressed their suspicions of the youth’s buying spree and the auction was paused. A federal agent approached DeChristopher and asked him to step outside.
The auction was controversial from the beginning. Environmental groups were in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, the governmental body responsible for the auction. They claimed the BLM hadn’t provided a sufficient Environmental Impact Statement as required through the National Environmental Policy Act.
A group of activists stood outside the auction holding signs to protest the leasing of the land, which, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune, included 7,670 acres around Arches and Canyonlands national parks. As a former self-described “armchair activist,” DeChristopher felt he needed to do something more than just stand outside with a sign and continue to be ignored by those in power.
When DeChristopher stepped outside with the federal agent, he was asked what his intentions were on bidding on his newly acquired parcels. DeChristopher’s response, as documented in a November 2010 interview with The New York Times was, “My intention is to disrupt this auction because it’s a threat to my future and a fraud against the American people.”
Albert Einstein once said, “Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.” In some ways, DeChristopher’s actions could be seen as a struggle with conscience. Conscience won.
In his blog post the day after the auction, DeChristopher wrote, “When faced with the opportunity to seriously disrupt the auction of some of our most beautiful lands in Utah to oil and gas developers, I could not ethically turn my back on that opportunity. By making bids for land that was supposed to be protected for the interests of all Americans, I tried to resist the Bush administration’s attempt to defraud the American people.”
When he attended the Pricing Carbon conference held at Wesleyan University in November of 2010, in which he was the only speaker to receive mid-speech bursts of applause, he said that he had made a conscious decision to disrupt the auction and he still stands by that decision. He confessed that although he had some trepidations surrounding jail time, he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with the thought that, at a time when economies were auctioning off the future, he didn’t do anything meaningful to stop them.
In an interview with Whole Terrain two weeks before his conviction trial DeChristopher said he saw the auction as three things: one, an attack on the survival of the human race in regards to climate instability and a “drill now, think later” mentality; two, an attack on democracy in regards to the lack of transparency and public participation in the decision-making process for public lands; and three, “the destruction of our natural heritage and the sacrifice of some pristine, irreplaceable places.”
“Certainly the most powerful of those for me was the threat of climate change, and that was the biggest motivator, ” DeChristopher told Whole Terrain. “As far as representing myself in court, I think the thing that most clearly justifies my actions was the second one, the fact that they weren’t following their own laws and this wasn’t a democratic process…The main thing that my jury needs to understand is that I’m charged with disrupting a legal auction and there wasn’t a legal auction going on.”
DeChristopher’s defense was prohibited from explaining the illegality of auction to the jury during his trial in the first week of March of this year. The judge deemed this information, as well as climate change-related information that could be included in a necessity defense, irrelevant in the face of DeChristopher’s intention to break the law.
The jury was also not told that 87 of the 116 parcels leased were later rescinded by the then new secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar after it was ruled that the auction did not abide by oil and gas leasing protocol.
DeChristopher was convicted on March 3 on two felony counts for disrupting the auction: one count for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and one count of False Statement. He is facing 10 years in prison and fines up to $750,000.
His sentencing trial was moved from June 23 to July 22 due the buzz of rallies planned on that day at capital buildings across the nation in support of DeChristopher.
On the day of his conviction trial and for through the four days that it lasted, DeChristopher’s supporters had flooded the streets outside the courthouse and raised their voices in song and chants, accompanied by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. It was an attempt, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, to summon “new volumes of outrage and love” in response to the threat of a decade in jail for standing up to what one individual saw as a crime against the American people.
Read our article on DeChristopher’s trial.