Tim DeChristopher- Right or Wrong?

Tim De Christopher- Right or Wrong?

Back on December 19th in Salt Lake City, University of Utah student Tim De Christopher walked into a BLM land lease auction for gas and oil parcels throughout Utah on public lands, and near national parks.

He was given a bidders paddle, and he proceeded to drive up the prices on several of the auction lease prices, and actually won the lease rights to 22,000 acres of land at a total price of $1.79 million. De Christopher readily admitted that he had neither the means, nor the intention to pay for any of the leases, and made no apologies for obstructing the leases in Utah’s redrock country- contending they were acts of civil disobedience.

Despite the entire auction being nullified by new Obama Administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, De Christopher has since been charged with 2 federal felonies, and faces up to 10 years in prison.


Herewith- we pose the question for debate- was Tim De Christopher right or wrong in his actions to disrupt the land lease process?


By Greg Aitkenhead


Let’s get this straight.  Even though Tim DeChristopher lifted a bidder’s paddle to “purchase” government oil and gas leases that he had no intention of paying for, and even though his actions completely befuddled an absolutely legal proceeding, he’s no monkeywrencher.  He didn’t put sugar in the gas tank of a front-end loader.  He didn’t nail a tree or plant a bomb.  He didn’t offend a sacred institution, or somehow bruise our sense of “western heritage.”


What he did, by disrupting oil and gas leases that were plainly driven by bad politics, greed, and corruption, was peacefully and civilly disobey.  Why he did it is another matter.  Many agreed with DeChristopher’s notion that the federal government’s policies concerning oil and gas development on public lands had veered toward corruption.  He wasn’t alone in thinking that drastic steps were necessary to save Utah’s wild lands from permanent damage.


Some congresional representatives also felt they could no longer stand idly by.  On October 22, 2008, just a few month’s before the planned BLM auction, Congressman Raul Grijalva, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, issued a scathing report which noted, “the Bush Administration has pushed a concerted strategy of reducing the protections for our public lands, parks and forests…opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible.”  His report uncovers a host of environmental affronts, including a deliberate and dangerous streamlining of the process by which oil and gas leases are granted.  “These policies achieved their aim,” cites Grijalva.  “Between 1999 and 2007, the number of drilling permits issued for development on public lands increased 361%.”  Its hard to believe any oversight remained.


Ironically, it was this lack of oversight that allowed Tim DeChristopher to walk into the BLM’s federal offices and grab a paddle.  “I figured I would be dragged out by security as soon as I went in,” he told NPR’s Howard Berkes. “But, instead I walked in and they said, ‘Hi, are you here to be a bidder?’ And so I said, ‘Yes I am.’”


Fans of DeChristopher’s civil disobedience were overwhelmed by its simplicity and effectiveness–I’ve talked with friends who said the news of his feat brought tears to their eyes.  Actor Robert Redford and writer Terry Tempest Williams have come out publicly in his support.  Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA literally walked beside DeChristopher as he made his way to the federal court building in Salt Lake City for his arraignment.  And impressively, former Director of the BLM, Pat Shea, offered to spearhead his legal defense.  Tim DeChristopher’s actions are iconic and remind us that the power to influence politics still rests with the people.  As one friend put it, “this is Gandhi in Utah.”


Am I saying that DeChristopher should avoid prosecution, that being Ghandi somehow exempts a person from responsibility for their actions?  Of course not–our laws must be respected.  They are (or should be) the voice of our nation’s people.  But that doesn’t mean citizens should refrain from acting out honorably in the face of corruption, and risk prosecution, to change the way our government behaves.


On a side note–a powerful argument in support of DeChristopher’s meddling relates to the fact that some of the BLM leases would have put gas wells and drill rigs in direct view of Arches National Park’s most identifiable feature: Delicate Arch.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the arch pictured on Utah’s license plates?


In 1968, Edward Abbey, the first true outspoken defender of Utah’s wild-lands, wrote in Desert Solitaire about the symbolic intrusion into Arches National Monument of a road survey crew, who Abbey believed represented the lumbering advance of industrial tourism.  After presenting a detailed polemic against the evils of automobiles in national parks, and offering some thoughtful solutions to overdevelopment, Abbey concludes with the recollection of a now famous act; his pulling up of the surveyor’s stakes.  He admits that this simple twist of the monkey wrench was, “a futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good.”


I hope future generations don’t look back on Tim DeChristopher’s attempt to stop the crude machine devouring our public lands and realize that his simple efforts were futile.  I hope that we, as earthbound, caring, and intelligent people, don’t forgo this opportunity to act.  And I hope, once and for all, that the heroes who strive to protect our wild places against the ravages of the unscrupulous, the foibles of the uncaring, and the insults of the greedy, will find overwhelming, exuberant, and everlasting support.  If you’re absolutely sure of being in the right, then hold your survey stakes up high, young meddlers, and grab a paddle.


Greg Aitkenhead spent 10 years as a guide peering into Utah from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and now resides on Colorado’s Western Slope.  He has never owned a monkey-wrench.  


By Kathleen Sgamma


One of Utah’s greatest assets is its spectacular red rocks scenery, and the accompanying fantastic opportunities for outdoor recreation.   Another is Utah’s significant reserves of natural gas which help provide the clean, affordable energy necessary to tackle climate change and increase our energy security.


Natural gas and oil activity occupies about 0.1% of the 40 million acres of public lands in Utah, and only on non-park, non-wilderness lands.  With that small footprint, the industry provides high-paying jobs and revenue to Utah’s rural economies.  Utah is the 8th largest natural gas producing state, and the industry annually contributes $2.9 billion to Utah’s economy, over $300 million in revenue to state and local governments, and 50% of total revenue to Utah’s permanent school fund.


Despite the balance between economic development and the environment, the December 2008 lease sale was disrupted by a student who fraudulently bid on several leases.  Tim DeChristopher felt compelled to risk jail time because he didn’t understand the careful balance achieved between responsibly developing our domestic natural gas and protecting the environment.  He also clearly didn’t understand the link between natural gas and our ability to tackle climate change.


Natural gas, which emits just over half the carbon of coal, is a vital source of clean-burning electricity.  As a result, American demand for natural gas may increase up to 35% with cap-and-trade and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  We can reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by 40% by simply increasing the utilization of existing natural gas power plants to 50%.  Natural gas backs up intermittent renewable energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.  Without natural gas enabling renewables, our electricity supply would become unreliable.


The natural gas industry is a partner to renewable energy, working to ensure its viability.  The public lands access challenges the natural gas industry faces regularly will also affect the wind and solar energy industries.  With a footprint 13 times larger than for the equivalent amount of natural gas, renewable energy would also be locked out by legislation like the Red Rocks Wilderness bill, which would designate 9.2 million acres of wilderness in Utah.


Despite the nation’s need for natural gas to address climate change, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to cancel seventy-seven leases from the December 2008 natural gas and oil lease sale in Utah, negating the actions of DeChristopher.  Calling the sale “rushed” in the “last weeks of the Bush Administration,” the Secretary stated that “We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes …”  Independent natural gas and oil producers in Utah agree; we do need to responsibly develop our energy resources, which is why we strongly disagree with the Secretary’s decision.


Secretary Salazar ignored seven years of environmental analysis and close consultation with local, state and federal agencies, including the National Park Service (NPS).  The public was engaged in numerous comment periods and meetings on the resource management plans which govern public land use.  The culmination of that process is that no new acreage is open to natural gas and oil, and no lands have fewer environmental protections than before.  Over the seven-year planning process, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) clearly identified the lands that would remain open to natural gas and oil development, and added protections for wildlife, cultural, air, water, and other resources.  BLM worked with NPS to ensure protections were added, and NPS agreed to the categorizations for leasing.


Despite that coordination, BLM deferred to last-minute objections by NPS and pulled all leases of concern, as announced in a joint statement in November.  Before the sale took place, parcels adjacent to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Parks, and Dinosaur National Monument were removed from the leasing list.  All that remained at the sale were parcels near existing natural gas fields and other leases.


That extensive planning process, environmental analysis, and deferral of controversial leases didn’t stop Tim DeChristopher.  Although he could have participated in the open, democratic process, he chose instead to break the law.  Ultimately, his actions made no difference, as Secretary Salazar, the appointee of a democratically-elected president, decided to cancel the leases.  The fact that DeChristopher broke the law at the lease sale remains, and he will have to face the consequences of his misguided actions.


The balance between environmental protection and developing vital energy resources is happening in Utah.  Public lands are being developed in a responsible manner that protects the natural beauty of Utah while supplying the natural gas we need to heat our homes, enable renewables, and tackle climate change.


Kathleen Sgamma

Director of Government Affairs

Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS)

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