In late 2008, a multi-million dollar Bureau of Land Management land auction–one that was set to turn over hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in southern Utah to oil and gas companies–was disrupted by a quiet, 27-year old economics student who simply walked in and started bidding. Today, Tim DeChristopher, aka Bidder70 is facing two felony charges for this act of civil disobedience. We spoke with DeChristopher about his motivation and whether he thinks it was all worth it.
What was your problem with the BLM auctions?
The auction had been rushed through. It was announced on election day, November 4th, when no one was paying attention, and there was a lot of objection to it on a lot of grounds. One, that it was for lands right outside of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks and some of the really amazing red rock areas out there. Another big objection was that the Bureau of Land Management wasn’t following their own rules. They hadn’t done an adequate environmental impact statement, they hadn’t talked to other environmental agencies like the National Park Service. Despite the objections, the auction was going forward.
My biggest concern was that they hadn’t even considered the climate impacts. For me there was this fundamental immorality about the auction.
So what happened that day in December?
There was going to be a protest outside the auction, and I went down for that, but on the drive down, I decided that I wanted to push harder than just holding a sign. I really wanted to take a stand and disrupt this auction, to do whatever I could, whether that might be yelling, or giving a speech, or throwing a shoe, or something like that. But when I walked into the lobby, the official there asked if I was there for the auction, and I said, “yes, I am,” and she asked, “Would you like to be a bidder?” And I said, “yes I would.”
Is it illegal to bid? Assuming you could’ve raised the money and actually paid for the leases?
It’s not entirely clear with oil leases. I had signed a piece of paper downstairs saying that it was a federal offense to bid without intent to pay. But I decided I could live with those consequences, and I couldn’t turn my back on this chance to make an impact. So I started out just driving up prices. And then I started winning some parcels. Pretty soon–I was winning every parcel. And then they stopped the auction.
What were the reactions of other bidders?
When I was driving up the prices there was a lot of muttering. Some people clearly knew what I was doing. When I started winning the parcels, people started talking to federal agents: “I think something’s up, you better stop this guy.”
How many parcels did you actually win?
I won 14 parcels, covering 22,500 acres. My bids totaled $1.8 million.
What’s become of the leases then?
The irony is that when the new administration took over, the new head of the Interior [Ken Salazar] overturned all the leases—not just the leases that I won, but all the others from that auction as well. He’s made it very clear that the auction itself was illegal, and that the whole process was corrupt. He’s used very bold language to describe it.
Even during this legal limbo, you’ve founded an organization, Peaceful Uprising, dedicated to taking direct action to combat the climate crisis. Why do you feel direct action is necessary, rather than working within the system?
You know how Gandhi said you have to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Well the change that most of us wish to see is a carbon tax, but our leaders aren’t doing that for us, so Gandhi’s call is then for us to be the carbon tax. What does that mean—to “be the carbon tax?” To cost the fossil fuel industry money in any way that we can. Getting in their way, slowing them down, shutting them down. Doing whatever we can to be that tax. It forces our leaders to make a choice—to either be more explicit in their war on the young generation, to to get serious about stopping climate change.
So the system itself isn’t equipped to tackle this problem?
One of the critiques that the prosecution throws out about my action is that if I objected to what was going on, I had legal alternatives to object. The question is whether that’s at all reasonable, whether I could’ve trusted this system. The auction happened months after the Mineral Management Service, a branch of the BLM, were exposed literally taking bribes of sex and drugs from fossil fuel industry executives. So, what, am I going to appeal to the oil industry themselves? The corporate influence in our entire system is the thread that runs through this whole story.
Do you have any regrets?
None at all. It’s been much more effective and a more positive experience than I ever could’ve expected. I made the choice to do this because I thought it was worth the sacrifices to keep the oil in the ground and to give us a better chance at a livable future. I didn’t know just how fulfilling it would be. And how much of an effect it would have on others, that it would radiate beyond just protecting those 22,000 acres from drilling.
After being postponed multiple times, Tim DeChristopher’s trial date is set for June 21st. Follow his story or offer support at Bidder70.org.
Photo by Cliff Lyon
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