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Posted March 9, 2011
Interview with Tim DeChristopher, environmental activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
On March 3, Tim DeChristopher was convicted by a federal jury in Salt Lake City, Utah on two felony counts of interfering with a government auction and making false statements when he placed bids at the auction in December 2008. DeChristopher had the winning bid on several parcels of land comprising thousands of acres that were being opened for oil and gas drilling during the last days of the outgoing Bush administration. In his bid, he won the rights to 22,500 acres out of 116,000 acres up for auction.
DeChristopher said he took the more radical step of becoming a bidder rather than just protesting outside the auction because he wanted to make a stronger statement against the environmental destruction that would exacerbate climate change and be a byproduct of the extraction of oil and possibly natural gas from the desert, near priceless icons like Arches National Park. DeChristopher, 29, faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $750,000 at his June 23 sentencing. He hasn't decided yet whether to appeal.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with DeChristopher about his nonviolent direct action and the organization he co-founded, Peaceful Uprising, to encourage others to take similar risks to combat the climate crisis and build a just, healthy world.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I was going in there with some kind of intention of waving a red flag about what was going on and try to delay the auction long enough that the new administration could reconsider and hopefully reverse the auction, which is eventually what happened. So I was just going in with that vague intention, not knowing what that might look like, if I was going to yell something, or make a speech, or something like that, and just when I walked in, they asked me if I wanted to be a bidder.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And you didn't have to meet any criteria or put down any money, or anything like that?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No, all it took was a driver's license to sign up. It was just a simple form.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What happened next?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: They stopped the auction after I won about 12 parcels in a row. They stopped it and an agent came and asked me to step outside. And I told him exactly what I was doing and why. They took me into custody -- they didn't arrest me at the time, but they took me into custody and questioned me for a few hours before releasing me that afternoon.
BETWEEN THE LINES: When were you charged, then?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I wasn't charged 'til almost four months later, I think in part because it took them a long time to figure out if I actually broke any laws. But it was actually after the auction was reversed that I was indicted.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Under the Obama administration, then?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Right.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Was the auction reversed because it was tainted by your participation or because the Obama administration had decided they didn't want to be auctioning off the drilling rights?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The latter. I mean, once they had taken a second look at the auction, the government admitted that they weren't following their own laws in the first place, and the auction itself was illegitimate to begin with.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So when that happened, did you feel like you were off the hook?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I thought it was possible, but I also realized that in some ways it made it more likely for me to be indicted because when they took a second look, it did expose the illegitimacies of the auction, and they decided those parcels weren't appropriate for leasing, it actually kept those parcels out of the hands of the oil industry.
BETWEEN THE LINES: You had considered using the necessity defense, that is, that you took action to prevent a greater harm, the despoiling of these lands, but you weren't able to, right?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: In the trial, we weren't allowed to say anything that didn't happen on Dec. 19. We weren't allowed to let the jury know that the auction was overturned afterwards because the government admitted it was illegitimate. We weren't allowed to let them know that I did in fact raise the money in the weeks after the auction to make the initial payment, and I offered that to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and they refused to take it. The jury never heard any of that info so the verdict was kind of a foregone conclusion by the time the trial happened.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Tell me again what exactly were the charges?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: It was one count of violating the federal on-shore oil and gas leasing reform act and one count of making false statements.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What were the false statements? You won the bids and you were going to pay for them.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, they said the false statement was that I signed the bidder registration form, which said that I was a bona fide bidder, and they said that at the time I signed it, I didn't have the intention to actually purchase and develop any of these oil leases. It was interesting in the trial during cross-examination when I was on the stand, the prosecutor asked if I was bidding in good faith. And I said, Could you define, "in good faith." And he said, "Well, it means you are a bona fide bidder." And I said, "Can you define bona fide in this application?" and he said, "I withdraw the question" and he changed the subject and talked about something else. They were never quite able to define what that meant, but they were pretty sure it wasn't me.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it possible that they'd be developing natural gas on these properties, or was it just oil?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: It was natural gas as well.
BETWEEN THE LINES: You co-founded a group called Peaceful Uprising, which is focused specifically around climate change. Can you explain its goals?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: It was something that was set up after the auction with a lot of folks that came together and had heard about what had happened and wanted to encourage similar actions.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Has that happened?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: There certainly have been a lot of folks who have expressed their sentiments to me about how they've been affected by this story, and a lot of folks that have come together and built a really strong community of folks who all share that sentiment that we need to be taking stronger action to defend a livable future. And I think the trial and the events surrounding it really galvanized that community a lot. I think it was an important point for the folks in Peaceful Uprising to make that very public statement outside the courthouse, that whatever happens to me, they're going to respond with joy and resolve and they're going to keep fighting for a livable future and they're not going to back down in the face of this attempted intimidation.
For more information, visit Tim DeChristopher's group's website at www.peacefuluprising.org