An environmental activist’s trial date has finally been set by a US district judge. Arrested after bidding – with no intention of paying – on federal oil and gas leases worth $1.8 million, Tim DeChristopher, a 28-year-old economics student, will face a three-day jury trial on 21 June. The two charges could land him in prison for a total of 10 years.
It all began on 19 December 2008, at a protest against an auction by the US Government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of drilling rights for oil and gas development on parcels of national park land. Environmental groups had earlier filed lawsuits against the BLM to stop the auctioning of public land to environmentally destructive companies. This had helped to defer the auction of about 53,000 hectares of land, but left an estimated 93,000 hectares still for sale. Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had described the auction as a ‘fire sale’ and ‘the Bush Administration’s last great gift to the oil and gas industry’.
On the day of the auction, Tim decided that simply holding up a sign in protest would not be enough. He felt that the auction was ‘a serious fraud against the American people and a threat to our future which deserved greater action’. Tim entered the auction by posing as a bidder, and managed to win 12 bids totaling 9,000 hectares of land – some going for as little as $5.55 a hectare. The auction was suspended midway and Tim was taken into police custody by federal agents who took a statement before releasing him.
On 17 January 2009 a US district court granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the BLM from auctioning the controversial leases, but it was not until the new Obama Administration took office that many of the leases were cancelled altogether. The judge responsible for this u-turn 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 and cultural resources for future generations.’
Despite this, in April 2009, Tim was formally indicted for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for giving ‘false statement’ by signing the bidder registration form. Almost a year later a judge has denied Tim the ability to use the ‘defence of necessity’ which argues that an action was necessary to prevent greater harm occurring. Tim’s legal team is hoping to make use of the fact that 24 bidders in the past five years have not been prosecuted for leases they won and failed to pay for, and the controversial nature of the original leases, many of which have since been cancelled.
Last February, four high-profile figures in the US – Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams and James Hansen – published an open letter describing Tim’s creative protest as ‘a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future’. They called for people to flood into Salt Lake City on the day of the trial, make their voices heard outside the courthouse and help to prevent ‘business as usual’. Echoing the actions of the environmental saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Tim’s trial in June will be watched closely by both increasingly courageous environmentalists and ever more devious oil and gas companies.
You can follow the trial at www.bidder70.orgIan Fitzpatrick