The bidder who caused chaos at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Friday auction of oil and natural gas leases in southern Utah was a 27-year-old University of Utah economics student and a self-styled environmental activist.
Tim DeChristopher’s game plan was to throw the auction into disarray by bidding on parcels with no intention of buying them and forcing producers to bid about a half a million dollars 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 Daily GPI, Dec. 22). A friend of DeChristopher’s, Kent Boardman, also was detained Friday by BLM agents, but it’s not clear if any charges will be brought against him since he did not bid, a BLM spokeswoman said.
Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the BLM in Utah, said buyers will have 10 days to reconsider and withdraw their bids if they think they paid too much, the Associated Press reported.
“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.
“I found it really easy to get inside and become a bidder…I started bidding and started driving up the prices for some of the oil companies. And throughout that time, I knew that I could be doing more and could really set aside some acres to be protected. And so then I started winning bids and disrupting it as clearly as I could,” he boasted.
In the end, DeChristopher supposedly bought more than 22,000 acres of land around Arches National Park and in Labyrinth Canyon and Mineral Point, worth an estimated $1.7 million, and significantly drove up the price of acreage for producers.
“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 expected to be charged late Monday. “There’s a good chance that they are going to be significant charges…I’m going to fight those. And, of course, I don’t want to go to jail.” Based on incident reports from BLM agents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City, UT, is expected to proceed with a criminal investigation of DeChristopher, which could take several weeks or more, said Melody Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
DeChristopher said there’s been “a lot of discussion” about third parties paying for the parcels he supposedly purchased. “I’m not sure if that would completely take the problem away or not, if the people of America just stood up and rebought the land that was already theirs.”
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 coaltion of 58 House lawmakers led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) Monday 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 Friday to protest the scheduled auction. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last Wednesday to halt the sale of 80 blocks that were set for auction on 164,000 acres in Utah (see Daily GPI, Dec. 18). BLM initially proposed auctioning 241 parcels on 359,450 acres, but the federal agency removed more than half of the offering following protests (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16). 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 Friday’s 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.
Amid tight security, BLM had said there were around 100 people at the auction Friday. In a statement posted on BLM’s Utah website, State Director Selma Sierra said only 6% of the lease parcels would even be developed because of the “costly and speculative” nature of the business. “Facts of the lease sale have been mischaracterized in the public forum, sowing confusion and misunderstanding,” she wrote.
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