Civil Disobedience Beats Big Oil in Utah

A few days ago, a young Utah resident, Tim DeChristopher used a bidding paddle as deftly as that David who hurled a rock at Goliath, effectively felling Big Oil companies bidding on ten parcels of land near his home. He might have done more, but oil and gas representatives unleashed police on the 27-year-old. Their basis? They didn’t recognize him as a regular bidder. Plainclothes officers, requested in advance by the BLM, removed him from the auction and held him for questioning, stopping him from bidding on any more of the 149,000 acres of our land that the BLM had offered up for oil leases that day.

Tim had come to Salt Lake City intending to join about 200 other concerned citizens waging peaceful protest outside the BLM office. Then he thought about all the times he has marched in protest, written letters to his representatives, signed petitions and supported environmental organizations, only to have the very real concerns and issues ignored entirely. That’s when he decided it was time to do something different.

“What the environmental movement has been doing for the past 20 years hasn’t worked,” Mr. DeChristopher said. “There’s a lot at stake… I decided I could be much more effective by an act of civil disobedience. There comes a time to take a stand.”

Our hero is a resident of the southern Utah area where the drilling would have taken place. He readily admits that he had no intention of going through with the deals, and didn’t have the money to do so either. He’s not in the least bit apologetic, though, and we agree that he shouldn’t be. George W. Bush and his oil baron pals are the ones who should be apologizing, for trying to pull this on the American people in the first place.

GWB is trying to get this all forced through quickly for his Big Oil cronies, before Barack Obama takes over on January 20, 2009. The issues? We don’t have long enough to list them all here, but let’s start with this: The oil and gas industry currently has about 4.6 million acres in Utah under lease already which is not in production. All told, they’re utilizing only about a million other acres of the leases they have been granted thusfar.

The BLM is entrusted with safeguarding our lands, but proposed to lease drilling rights near national treasures like the Arches National Park, the White River, the greater Desolation Canyon region, Labyrinth Canyon, the benches east of Canyonlands National Park, Nine Mile Canyon, the Book Cliffs and the Deep Creek Mountains. These have been carefully protected for a century, but the Bush Administration’s BLM would have left them wide open.

Tim DeChristopher is hardly alone in his protests. Since the lease auctions were announced on November 4th, archaeologists, business owners, conservationists, ecologists, fishermen, hunters, preservationists, and business owners have all registered objections to the BLM’s plans to allow drilling into Utah’s most beautiful and pristine red-rock terrains. The National Park Service, members of Congress and John Podesta, the head of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, have also demanded that the auctions be stopped, or at least re-evaluated to accommodate environmental concerns. The BLM did pull some of the 360,000 acres originally offered, but the rush to lease the remaining 149,000 acres marched on despite all of these objections.

Kathleen Sgamma, a director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, apparently didn’t feel the remaining 149,000 acres was enough for them. She claims “The BLM was under a lot of pressure, unfairly.” There may have been pressure put on the BLM, but it seems that pressure was applied by the Oval Office and Big Oil and Gas companies who pushed for the BLM to sell leases on 360,000 acres. (Ms. Sgamma also inaccurately alleged that a wildlife attorney may have been working with DeChristopher, simply because she had seen them talking to each other.)

Kent Hoffman, a BLM deputy director, announced there had been a bogus bidder, and that successful bidders who believed their offers had been run up illegally could withdraw their bids. BLM’s Terry Catlin said the BLM didn’t want to reopen the bidding on the parcels DeChristopher snagged unless all interested parties were able to compete for the leases. Those parcels weren’t expected to be available again until at least February — after Obama takes office — during the next scheduled auction. But the saga isn’t quite over.

More than 211,000 acres adjacent to national parks aren’t safe yet. The lands not successfully auctioned, including those bid upon by Tim DeChristopher, are now on a “stand down” agreement made in a D.C. Federal Court, but only until Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Barack Obama is to be inaugurated. A Washington, D.C. federal judge is expected to hold another hearing, presumably on other motions filed regarding the land, during the week of Jan. 12.

Mr. DeChristopher said he was willing to go to jail, “if that’s what it takes,” to defend against the global climate disruption and other environmental threats.  Some may say he’s disruptive.  We see him as the truest of patriots, and commend both his ingenuity and willingness to act.

Thanks to Patty Henetz of the Salt Lake Tribune for her informative contributions to this article.

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