Young Activist Faces 10 Years in Prison After Trying to Save Public Lands From Oil and Gas Companies

Tina Gerhardt Feb 21, 2011

On Friday, December 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher participated in a public auction. As the Bush administration moved to auction off 77 parcels of federal land totaling 150,000 acres for oil and gas drilling, DeChristopher, a student at the University of Utah at the time, bid $1.7 million for 14 parcels totaling 22,000 acres of land, although he did not have the funds to pay for it.

A federal grand jury indicted him at the behest of the Bureau of Land Management, which was selling the land. He was arrested that day and charged in April 2009 with two counts of felony: 1) making a false statement to the federal government; and 2) violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, which establishes a competitive bidding process for oil and gas leases.

If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $75,000 fine. His legal defense team is Patrick Shea and Ronald J. Yengrich. His trial is currently set for Monday, February 28, 2011.

Last year, Dr. James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Robert Redford and Terry T. Williams wrote an open letter that was widely circulated in support of TimDeChristopher’s “creative protest against runaway energy policy.”

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Tim DeChristopher and ask him about his upcoming trial.

Tina Gerhardt: What’s the current status of your trial?

Tim DeChristopher: My trial is scheduled for Monday, Friday 28, 2011. They have limited my defense, not allowing the necessity defense, also known colloquially as the “choice of evil” defense. Basically, I am not allowed to argue out of necessity, which makes it harder to discuss the illegitimacy of the auction to begin with.

TG: Do you think the recent decision in the trial of activists who sought to shut down a coal-fired power plan, where the judge spared them from jail sentences stating they were acting “with the highest possible motives,” marks a sign of shifting opinion vis-à-vis direct action to avert climate change?  

TD: Certainly not with my judge. He actually holds the opposite belief.

We were making the case for selective prosecution before the indictment because we had substantial evidence that the oil industry had played a strong role. One of my attorneys got a call from an AP reporter before I was informed what the charges against me were. The journalist told my attorney, these are going to be the charges. The reporter got that information from an oil industry lobbyist. So before I knew or my attorneys knew, the oil industry knew. Why did they know before my attorneys knew?

And then, there were 25 people in the last 3 years that have won leases without being able to pay for them, who had a profit motive, and none of them have been prosecuted. It seems that they are coming down particularly hard on me. So my judge has the opposite position of the judge in the Ratcliffe trials.

TG: Where did the idea for your BLM auction action come from?

TD: A BLM staffer asked if I would like to be a bidder. I said, yes I would. So they signed me up. It was easier than signing up on eBay.

TG: Did you have previous concerns about the environment?

TD: Yes, I was concerned about the state of the environment and how little people were doing. I was building up the commitment to do something to try to resist the climate crisis. I felt that writing letters and riding my bike was not enough. Part of the process was like a mourning process for my future.

TG: What did you do before your undergraduate studies in economics?

TD: Before my undergraduate studies, I worked with Kids in the Wilderness. And what I was seeing there was that just about every kid was having a problem adjusting to society and that couldn’t be a problem with human nature, it had to be a flaw with society and not the other way around. And I realized that I could be more effective changing the fundamental flaws. And I saw that most of those fundamental decisions were based on economics or used economics as a system.

I certainly did not see climate change as an environmental issue. I don’t see it that way now. I actually think that’s why we fail to address climate change. Climate change is a human rights issue, an economics issue, a social justice issue. The issue with climate change is to protect human civilization.

We need to look at ourselves to address climate change, rather than appealing to power (make phone calls and write letters). Rather than appeal to power, we need to assert power — because we have the power to enact social change.

The overwhelming message that we hear from the climate change movement is about who we are as consumers, but that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. But we actually have the power to address climate change by taking action to address our needs. We demand perfection of ourselves as consumers but have far lower standards for ourselves as citizens.

TG: Are you asking people to come to Salt Lake City?

TD: Yes, there’s a “Countdown to Uprising Empowerment Summit.” It begins on Friday, February 25, 2011. There will be workshops, concerts, art, demonstrations, speakers, theater, non-violent direction action training.

Tina Gerhardt is an academic and journalist. Her writing has appeared in Grist, the Huffington Post, In These Times and the Nation.

This article was originally published on AlterNet.

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