The U.S. Attorney Office in Utah is continuing its criminal investigation of a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student and a self-styled environmental activist who caused chaos at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of oil and natural gas leases in mid-December. "It would be premature" at this time to say what charges will be brought against Tim DeChristoper, said U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch.
DeChristopher threw the auction into disarray by bidding on parcels with no intention of buying them and forcing producers to bid more for sought-after acreage. The bidding resumed only after DeChristopher was taken into custody, with producers eventually purchasing 148,598 acres on 116 parcels in southern Utah for approximately $7.47 million (see NGI, Dec. 22, 2008). The BLM gave buyers the option of reconsidering and withdrawing their bids if they thought they paid too much.
"I saw some protesters walking back and forth outside [where the sale was occurring], 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," DeChristopher said on Democracy Now, an independent national news broadcast that is heard daily.
He said he has raised $14,000 of the $45,000 that he needs to pay the federal BLM to hold 13 parcels he won, the Associated Press reported Friday.
"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...I guess there was a lot of chaos, and they [BLM] didn't really know how to proceed at that point."
DeChristopher said he expects "significant charges" to be brought against him, but he added "I'm going to fight those."
DeChristopher disputed claims that he was acting on behalf of environmental groups, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "No, no. There was no kind of a plan or anything...It was just me in there acting alone. It wasn't especially premeditated. I got in there and saw the opportunity to make [a] difference and then realized that, seeing that opportunity, I couldn't ethically justify not taking it."
He further accused the Bush administration of trying to ram the auction through before leaving office. "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," DeChristopher said.
Echoing that sentiment, a coalition of 58 House lawmakers led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) in December called for the incoming Obama administration to either halt the leasing process for public lands in Utah that have been proposed for wilderness designation in Congress, or -- if the leases already have been issued -- cancel them and refund the high bidders' monies.
Hundreds stood outside BLM's Utah offices in Salt Lake City to protest the scheduled Dec. 19 auction. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit to halt the sale of 80 blocks that were set for auction on 164,000 acres in Utah. BLM initially proposed auctioning 241 parcels on 359,450 acres, but the federal agency removed more than half of the offering following protests. It also had deferred leasing in other disputed areas.
However, under an agreement reached with the environmental groups, the Interior Department, which oversees BLM, agreed to not finalize any leases on the disputed 80 parcels considered environmentally sensitive. The 80 parcels include areas adjacent to national parks in the state. The agreement was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and it gives U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina nearly a month to consider whether to block some of the leases sold.
"Anyone [who bought] them at [the Dec. 19] sale will be proceeding at their peril," said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC is one of the groups challenging the sale.
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