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Posing as a Bidder, Utah Student Disrupts Government Auction of 150,000 Acres of Wilderness for Oil & Gas Drilling

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In a national broadcast exclusive, University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher explains how he “bought” 22,000 acres of land in an attempt to save the property from drilling. The sale had been strongly opposed by many environmental groups. Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said, “This is the fire sale, the Bush administration’s last great gift to the oil and gas industry.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bureau of Land Management held a controversial auction Friday to sell oil and gas drilling rights to nearly 150,000 acres of wilderness in southern Utah. The sale had been strongly opposed by many environmental groups. Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said, “This is the fire sale, the Bush administration’s last great gift to the oil and gas industry.”

A coalition of environmental groups opposed to energy development on public lands filed a lawsuit last week to block the auction. They struck a deal with the Bureau of Land Management that allowed the auction to proceed on the condition that the leases on the most contested portions of the land will not be issued for another thirty days, until a federal judge hears the case.

Actor Robert Redford has been among those speaking out against the sale of these lands.

    ROBERT REDFORD: Anyone who’s been there can testify to the fact that there is no place like these lands. These lands are not Cheney’s and Bush’s. The lands are ours. They’re ours, because they’re a part of our legacy, they’re part of the human American legacy. No place on earth, for anyone — as Congressman Baird has said, no place on earth can speak to the balance of beauty and nature like these areas. And the fact that they would — there’s so much deception, so much sleight of hand here. I mean, how would you feel if you had an heirloom that was centuries-old in your family, and someone came in while you were not looking or they distracted you by creating something over here, and they took it away from you? How would you feel? This is not their land. It’s our land. These are public lands. And the BLM is supposed to be protecting those lands on our behalf.

    Now, once these lands are taken away, they’re gone. And gone doesn’t come back. So I feel pretty strongly that we have to do everything. It isn’t a question of trying to talk to them. Forget that. That doesn’t work. They’ve been trashing the environment ever since they came in, almost like they had a duty to do so. But when they trash our lands, and not theirs, and claim it’s their prerogative, then something’s pretty criminal. So I say stop it. Enough is enough. Not only will it not serve the purpose they keep stating — it’s not going to provide any new energy — it’s going to pollute what we’ve already got, and it’s going to take away something that is ours to give to our children, their children and their children and their children. So I feel pretty strongly about this. I appreciate being given the chance to speak to it. As I said before, it’s an emotional situation for me. And we should not allow this to happen. It’s criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: Actor Robert Redford, opposing the sale of Utah wilderness to oil and gas companies. While many environmental groups launched campaigns to oppose the sale of the land, one student in Salt Lake City attempted to block the sale by disrupting the auction itself. Twenty-seven-year-old Tim DeChristopher posed as a potential bidder and bid hundreds of thousands of dollars on parcels of the land, driving up prices and winning some 22,000 acres for himself, without any intention of paying for them.

The Bureau of Land Management must now wait over a month before it can auction off these properties, but by then the bureau will no longer be run by the Bush administration.

Tim DeChristopher was arrested Friday and is scheduled to appear in court later today. He joins us in Salt Lake City.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim DeChristopher.

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Good morning, Amy. It’s great to be here. I read your book last summer and really enjoyed it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks. Why don’t you start off by telling us what happened on Friday? What did you start off planning to do that day? Where were you?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I started off, actually, at a final exam at the university and went straight from there down to the BLM office. And I saw some protesters walking back and forth outside, and I knew that I wanted to do more than that and that this kind of injustice demanded a higher level of disruption. And so, I just decided that I wanted to go inside and cause a bigger disruption.

And from there, I found it really easy to get inside and become a bidder, and went inside and was in the auction room. And once I was in there, I realized that any kind of speech or disruption or something like that wasn’t going to be very effective, but I saw pretty quickly that I could have a pretty major impact on the way this worked. And it just took me a little bit of time to build up the courage to do that, knowing what the consequences would be. And so, I started bidding and started driving up the prices for some of the oil companies. And throughout that time, I knew that I could be doing more and could really set aside some acres to really be protected. And so, then I started winning bids and disrupting it as clearly as I could.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work? You get a paddle?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I just had a bidder paddle and just kept raising it as much as I could.

AMY GOODMAN: And you ended up buying what? Over 22,000 acres of land?


AMY GOODMAN: And where was this land?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Honestly, I didn’t know at the time. But now it turns out that a lot of that land was the land right around Arches National Park and in Labyrinth Canyon and Mineral Point and beautiful places like that. So it turned out pretty well.

AMY GOODMAN: And now what are your intentions? Or first, I should ask, what was the response of the people in the room? When did they understand who you were? Or did they, at the time?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Once I started buying up every parcel, they understood pretty clearly what was going on. And so, at that point, they stopped the auction, and some federal agents came in and took me out. And from other people who were in the room afterwards, I guess there was a lot of chaos, and they didn’t really know how to proceed at that point. But then, I was away talking to the federal agents at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: When did they arrest you?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, they took me into custody there on Friday, and they had me for a few hours. But it was a pretty cordial conversation that I was having with them. I was very clear about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I told them all my motivations and why the environmental movement, as it’s been, and myself included, hasn’t been effective and why I felt it was necessary to take more drastic actions. And so, they took my statement there and decided that I wasn’t a threat, and so they released me. But charges haven’t been pressed yet. That’s going to happen later today.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the Salt Lake Tribune article on you. It says, “He didn’t pour sugar into a bulldozer’s gas tank. He didn’t spike a tree or set a billboard on fire. But wielding only a bidder’s paddle, a University of Utah student just as surely monkey-wrenched a federal oil- and gas-lease sale Friday, ensuring that thousands of acres near two southern Utah national parks won’t be opened to drilling anytime soon.”

Can you talk about how it is that this land was being auctioned off? And what were the other companies, organizations in the room that were buying it up?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, basically, the Bush administration was trying to rush through this auction as quickly as possible to get it done before Obama took office, because they knew that it wouldn’t be acceptable under any other administration other than Bush and Cheney. And so, they just circled vast swaths of southern Utah. Their initial announcement, they included pieces of property that had houses on them in Moab and included property that they didn’t even have rights to drill in or they didn’t have rights to sell off and included a lot of areas around national parks. And so, they rushed through the process and didn’t have time to do adequate environmental impact statements, didn’t have time to take an adequate amount of public comment or even input from other federal agencies. And there was a big battle with the National Park Service, because they were upset over a lot of areas that were included in there. But luckily, they also didn’t have time to make sure that all the bidders were bonded, which is how I got in so easily.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this land you have walked, traveled, enjoyed?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I’ve been around that area a lot, and a lot of southern Utah and the wilderness throughout this state, I’ve enjoyed for a long time. And that’s why I originally came here. I spent my first two years in Utah working for a wilderness therapy program and spending most of my time out there in some of the beautiful lands of Utah.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go on in the Salt Lake Tribune piece, where it says, “During the confusion that followed DeChristopher’s removal, Sgamma” — I don’t know if I’m pronouncing this person’s name right, Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States — “said she had seen Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney David Garbett ‘communicating’ with DeChristopher during the auction. She questioned whether SUWA” — that’s the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — “had been acting in concert with [DeChristopher] the BLM dubbed a ‘nuisance bidder.’” That was you. Were you working with other groups in the room?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: No, no. There was no kind of a plan or anything. The extent of the communication that the SUWA attorney had with me was he dropped his business card in my lap on his way out the door, as he did with a lot of the other bidders who won land, because they were intending to try to protect some of those afterwards, hoping that the oil companies would be willing to give them up later.

But it was just me in there acting alone. It wasn’t especially premeditated. I got in there and saw the opportunity to make the difference and then realized that, seeing that opportunity, I couldn’t ethically justify not taking it. I knew that as bad as this could possibly turn out, if I ended up going to prison, then I could live with that. But if I saw an opportunity to protect the land of southern Utah and I saw an opportunity to keep some oil in the ground and give us a better chance for a livable future and I passed up that opportunity, then I wouldn’t be able to live with that. And so, I just had to make that choice on my own.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, you’re not alone. Members of the National Park Service; members of Congress; John Podesta, head of the President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, have all said the lease sale should be halted or altered to accommodate environmental concerns. What was the response of, well, the protesters outside, now the environmental groups, as your action has become known?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: The response has really been overwhelming, and that’s been the most powerful part of the whole thing for me. Over the past two-and-a-half days, I’ve just got an overwhelming amount of support from all across the country and from different parts of the world. People have been standing up, inspired and encouraged to take action on their own, which is really powerful. And people have been coming out of the woodwork to support me. The former director of the BLM, Patrick Shea, has now volunteered to lead my legal team pro bono. And so, he’s on our side in a big way, and he’s a great asset to have.

This has really been emotional and hopeful for me to see that kind of support over the last couple of days, because I did feel like I was putting myself out on a limb there alone, and now, after thousands of supportive statements from people, I see that, you know, for all the problems that people can talk about in this country and for all the apathy and, you know, the eight years of oppression and the decades of eroding civil liberties, America is still very much the kind of place that when you stand up for what is right, you never stand alone. And that’s been really powerful for me to witness.

AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone offered simply to pay for the land that you bid for and succeeded in winning? What was it, at $1.8 million?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Right. There’s been a lot of discussion of that, and I’m not sure if that would completely take the problem away or not, if the people of America just stood up and re-bought the land that was already theirs. That might be an option that we have to pursue, but at this point, we’re not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now there’s two kinds of land. One is what you bid for, didn’t win, but you upped to the price for everyone else, something like to the tune of half-a-million dollars, so other bidders, like oil companies, whatever, had to pay more, because you were in there bidding against them.


AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s the land you actually bought. Now, that land —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- can’t go up again until something like February, is that right? Which means a new administration, an administration who — we know at least the head of the transition team, John Podesta, has expressed concern about the sale of this land. The land whose price you upped just by bidding, though you didn’t win, that could be sold within this ten-day period?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: My impression of that is that those oil companies can give that back if they feel like they purchased it in any kind of way that’s not acceptable to them, because I happened to drive the cost of their oil up a little closer to what the actual cost of producing oil is and the actual external costs that all the rest of us are going to have to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the charges you’re facing right now? And are you willing to go to jail?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: The charges haven’t been released yet, so I don’t know what charges I’m facing. There’s a good chance that they are going to be significant charges. And, you know, obviously, I’m going to fight those. And, of course, I don’t want to go to jail. And I’m willing to, if it comes to that, but, you know, I’m not looking to be a martyr or anything like that.

I’ve seen the need for more serious action by the environmental movement and to protect a livable future for all of us. I’ve seen that need for a long time. And frankly, I’ve been hoping that someone would step up and someone would come out and be the leader and someone would put themselves on the line and make the sacrifices necessary to get us on a path to a more livable future. And I guess I just couldn’t wait any longer for that someone to come out there and had to accept the fact that that someone might be me.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you a student?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Yes, I’m an economics student at the University of Utah.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this your school break?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I just took my last final exam on Friday morning and went straight from there down to the auction.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the University of Utah said anything to you, officials there express support or otherwise?

TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: No, and, you know, I wouldn’t expect them to come out and make any official statement. Some of my professors, a lot of students have contacted me and expressed their support. The professors, especially, have been really supportive and have joined my team so far. And, you know, they kind of did their job beforehand. They kind of did their job in getting me ready for this and committing me to hold true to my values and in teaching me what was going on. In fact, the final exam that I took on Friday morning, one of the questions was about this oil sale and about, if only the oil companies were bidding on this land, are they actually going to be paying the real price for the production of oil? And, of course, the answer that the professor was expecting is no, they’re not, because there’s a lot of external costs that all of us have to pay for the production of oil that aren’t included in those. So they did their part ahead of time in putting me where I needed to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, thank you for joining us. You’ll have an interesting essay to write when you go back to school: “What I Did on My Winter Vacation.”


AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher is a University of Utah economics student. We will follow his case. He goes to court later today. He disrupted Friday’s auction of Utah’s pristine wilderness to oil and gas companies by buying up some of the land himself.

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