Bush-era oil leases in Utah canceled / Feb. 4, 2009
In its first action to overturn Bush administration policies on
energy, the Obama administration on Wednesday said it will cancel oil
drilling leases on more than 130,000 acres near two national parks and
other protected areas in Utah. “In the last weeks in office, the Bush
administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases near some of
our nation’s most precious landscapes in Utah,” Interior Secretary Ken
Salazar told reporters. ““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.”
“We will take time and a fresh look at these 77 parcels to see if they
are appropriate for oil and gas development,” he said, adding that the
Bureau of Land Management will return the $6 million in bids from an
auction last December. The 77 leases were for areas near Arches and
Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile
Canyon, which is sometimes called the world’s longest art gallery for
its collection of ancient rock-art panels.
Critics, backers weigh in
Republicans and the oil industry have argued that the United States
should open more domestic areas if it wants to create jobs and reduce
its reliance on foreign oil. “This action will come as a
disappointment to communities that were counting on these energy
leases to generate high-wage jobs in these difficult economic times,”
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement. “We hope today’s
decision does not signal the administration is returning to the failed
policies of the past, leaving much of America’s vast energy resources
locked up while the nation’s demand for energy continues to grow,”
added Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
Environmental groups lauded the action, saying drilling would have
threatened Utah’s wild lands and spoil views from some of the state’s
spectacular national parks. “I see this announcement as a sign that
after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our
government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our
lands,” actor and activist Robert Redford, a trustee with the Natural
Resources Defense Council, said in a statement issued by groups that
opposed the leases. Redford owns a home in Utah and hosts the annual
Sundance Film Festival there. The alliance of groups in December filed
a lawsuit to try to stop the leasing, in part citing concerns it would
pollute the air in the protected areas.
Judge had blocked leases
In January, a judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing
the BLM, which is part of Interior, from moving forward with the
leases. “At best these lands will produce only 1.5 hours of the oil we
use in a whole year,” Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney who
represented the conservation groups in court, said in Wednesday’s
statement. “The oil industry will profit, not America.”
Conservation groups promised to press ahead with the lawsuit to
challenge long-term management plans that made the sale of the parcels
possible in the first place. The plans, governing 7 millions acres of
public land in Utah, were approved by the BLM last year. The Interior
Department said it was able to scrap the leases because the BLM had
not yet formally accepted them. The National Park Service protested
the Dec. 19 auction weeks before it was held, and the BLM removed some
parcels from the auction list in response.
At first, the BLM was going to auction a parcel so close to Delicate
Arch, the signature landmark at Arches park near Moab, drills might
have been visible through the center of the 33-foot-wide span. That
parcel was 1.3 miles away. It was taken off the auction list under
Park Service protest, but the BLM took bids on other drilling parcels
within view of Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur parks. Salazar said he
was allowing the lease of 39 other parcels auctioned off in December
that were not challenged in the lawsuit. The BLM is scheduled to hold
its next auction in Utah on March 24. It wasn’t known Wednesday what
lands might go up for sale next.
A monkey wrench
The battle between the Bush administration and activists took an
unusual turn in December when an activist won $1.7 million in leases
but then didn’t have the money for a down payment on them. The
activist, Tim DeChristopher, said in early January that he had raised
$45,000 from supporters and that if he didn’t have to use the money he
would contact donors to determine what to do with the cash.
The decision does not mean DeChristopher is off the hook, U.S.
Attorney Brett Tolman told The Associated Press. Tim DeChristopher, a
27-year-old economics major at the University of Utah, won $1.7
million in leases even though he had no intention or means to pay.
Tolman said some people want DeChristopher prosecuted for running up
lease prices and safeguarding several parcels between Arches and
Canyonlands national parks. To many environmentalists, however,
DeChristopher is a hero. He said Wednesday he was willing to go to
federal prison if he is charged for his act of monkey-wrenching. “This
is how the environmental movement should be working,” he said.
To thwart the sale of Utah wilderness to big oil, a student bid for it
at auction – and won / January 11, 2009
Tim DeChristopher makes an unlikely landowner: the gangly economics
student, dressed in combat trousers and a hoodie, doesn’t look as
though he has ever owned anything more valuable than an iPod. As of
last Friday, though, DeChristopher became the proud owner of 22,500
acres of Red Rock Desert – a magnificent symbol of the American Wild
West. He hopes the $45,000 (£30,000) cheque he has just written will
serve as a deposit on his chunk of Utah desert and will keep him out
of prison – for now.
It’s not unusual to hear of bidders at an auction getting carried away
and going over the budget they set themselves, but few can have done
so in as spectacular a way as DeChristopher, an environmental
enthusiast who intended to raise a gentle protest at the sale of
parcels of desert land for exploration by oil and gas companies and
ended up spending $1.8m (£1.2m). “I won my first bid for a parcel of
land – about 220 acres – for $495. After the first rush of adrenaline,
I started to relax; I knew there was no going back,” he says.
Selling the land at the auction, three weeks ago, was to be one of the
last decisive acts of the George Bush administration. A row had been
rumbling over the sale for some time: the American government intended
to sell off 360,000 acres – on 10-year leases – for exploration but
had been forced to reduce that to 150,000 acres after a vocal campaign
spearheaded by the actor Robert Redford, who lives in Utah. “These
lands are not Bush and Cheney’s; these are our lands,” Redford said.
“How would you feel if you had an heirloom in your family that was
centuries old and someone came in when you were not looking and took
it away from you?”
On the day of the auction, DeChristopher was sitting his economics
finals at the University of Utah. He had intended to wander down to
the auction later in the day to see what was going on but was struck
by one of the questions in his exam paper: “In the auction that’s
happening today, if there are only oil and gas men in the room bidding
on these parcels, is the final cost going to reflect the true value of
“The answer they were looking for was: no, it’s not,” says
DeChristopher, “because there are a lot of extra costs that the rest
of us pay for the development of oil – things like healthcare costs
that come from pollution and the cost of mitigating climate change.”
The question was still in his mind as he arrived at the Bureau of Land
Management building in Salt Lake City. About 100 protesters were
marching back and forth, but there was a feeling of resignation. “All
these people were holding their signs but knew it wasn’t making any
difference,” says DeChristopher.
“I’d been to environmental protests before. I’ve waved signs and
marched, written letters, signed petitions and spoken to my
congressmen. None of it ever made any difference. I knew I had to make
more of a nuisance of myself than that.” He decided to go inside and
cause a bit of disruption. Instead, something unexpected happened. An
official approached him and said: “Hi, are you here for the auction?”
He thought for a second. “Er, yes. I am.”
“Are you a bidder?” she asked, smiling. “Well, er, yes I am.”
DeChristopher found himself handing over his driving licence and a
minute later had signed up. He took his bidding paddle, number 70, and
sat down. Remembering the exam question, he knew he could drive up the
prices simply by bidding. “I sat there for about half an hour
grappling with my conscience,” he says. “I knew that if I were to make
a bid, there would be serious consequences. I was cautious at first –
I just wanted to push up the cost of the land parcels. I didn’t want
to win a bid.”
Inevitably, the scruffy, shaven-headed student began to attract
attention. “I definitely stood out,” he says. “Everyone else in the
room seemed to know each other, and couldn’t figure out who this kid
was who was driving up the prices.” Then it occurred to him that
though his bids were making the land more expensive, they were still
falling into the hands of the oil companies and would be plundered and
laid to waste. If he bought some land, he could protect it from
development. Never mind the fact that he didn’t have a cent to pay for
it – he’d think about that later. The lots got bigger and more
expensive. “I ended up winning 12 in a row.” In all, 22,500 acres.
When the auctioneer called a five-minute break, DeChristopher knew the
game was up. He was taken into custody and questioned by the bureau’s
law enforcement agents and local police. “I told them why I felt I had
to take serious action. It sounds like an intimidating situation but I
felt they were quite sympathetic,” he says. Four hours later he was
released and gave an impromptu press conference. Since then, the phone
hasn’t stopped ringing.
He set up a website and donations began to pour in – mostly just $10
or $20 – enabling him to meet the $45,000 deposit on the land that was
required last week. As he bought 10-year leases, he argues he should
be given 10 years to pay them off, and he is confident he will be able
Despite his high-profile opposition to the sale, DeChristopher has had
no contact with Redford. He suspects this is because Redford belongs
to one of America’s biggest environmental groups – the kind he has
reservations about. “Their basic approach is that environmentalists
should sign petitions and send donations. They want to make change one
concession at a time, which gives them a seat at the table of power.”
If DeChristopher can’t come up with the balance in the next few months
he could be charged with fraud and face up to three years in prison.
He has resigned himself to the fact that the US attorney will probably
press charges, but he has disrupted the sale for long enough to see
Barack Obama take office – and that might make all the difference to
what happens next.
“It’s still unclear how the new administration will deal with this,”
he says. “I can only hope that President Obama follows through on his
promise for a transparent government.” Until then, he vows to keep
developers off the land, even if he has to do it from a prison cell.
email : tim.dechristopher [at] rocketmail [dot] com
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the story we first covered six weeks
ago. You may remember Tim DeChristopher. He is the economics student
at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who made headlines in
December when he posed as a bidder in an effort to disrupt a
controversial last-minute move by the Bush administration to auction
off nearly 150,000 acres of wilderness in southern Utah. Tim
DeChristopher ended up buying 22,000 acres of public land located near
the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National
Monument and other pristine areas. He—well, I think the cost was $1.8
This is Tim DeChristopher speaking on Democracy Now!
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: 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. And from other people who were in the room afterwards, I guess
there was a lot of chaos, and they didn’t really know how to proceed
at that point. But then, I was away talking to the federal agents at
AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher was arrested, and days later, he told
Democracy Now! he was ready to go to jail.
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: I’ve seen the need for more serious action by
the environmental movement and to protect a livable future for all of
us. I’ve seen that need for a long time. And frankly, I’ve been hoping
that someone would step up and someone would come out and be the
leader and someone would put themselves on the line and make the
sacrifices necessary to get us on a path to a more livable future. And
I guess I just couldn’t wait any longer for that someone to come out
there and had to accept the fact that that someone might be me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, charges have yet to be filed against Tim
DeChristopher, but on Wednesday a major development occurred in the
story. President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the former
senator from Colorado, canceled the leases to drill for gas and oil on
seventy-seven parcels of public land in Utah put up for auction in
December. Salazar made the announcement in a phone call with
KEN SALAZAR: In its last weeks in office, the Bush
administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep
of some of our nation’s icons, some of our nation’s most treasured
landscapes, and did so particularly in Utah. In a December 19, 2008
lease sale, they offered 130 parcels for oil and gas development,
seventy-seven parcels of which are close in proximity to Arches and
Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile
Canyon. The seventy-seven parcels in total contain about 130,000
acres. President Obama and I believe strongly that we need to
responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help reduce our
dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and
AMY GOODMAN: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, speaking Wednesday.
During the same conference call, Salazar refused to declare the public
land in Utah to be permanently off-limits to drilling.
Well, Tim DeChristopher joins us now from Utah. Welcome back to
Democracy Now!, Tim. Your response and where your case stands now?
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, my response is, I’m very encouraged by this.
I’m glad to see our leaders and our new administration taking a strong
stand to defend our land and defend our future.
And really, I’m encouraged to see that in this model, the
environmental movement really works. I think this is a great example
of how the movement should be working, with groups like SUWA and NRDC
that are on the inside pushing through their means of lawsuits or
whatever is available to them, and then people like me on the outside
that are pushing the boundaries and doing the more controversial
things that are raising awareness and really shifting the discussion.
And with both of us pushing in our own way, we’re able to be far more
effective than either one of us could have been on our own. So I’m
really encouraged to see that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you picked up a paddle. You came from your exam at
the University of Utah, final exam before Christmas. You go to the
protest outside. You decide you don’t think they’re accomplishing
much. You walk inside, see they’re not bonding people, so you picked up
—what was the number of the paddle?
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Number seventy.
AMY GOODMAN: Number seventy, and started bidding on the land. You
picked up the prices on some that you didn’t win, and you ended up
winning $1.8 million worth of land. What happens to that land now?
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, my understanding is that now they kind of
have to go back to the drawing board with this land and redo the
environmental impact statement, redo the public comment period,
reconsider whether this is really land that we should be drilling for
oil and gas on. And there’s actually a question of whether they should
be redoing the resource management plans that were rushed through, as
well. So that’s encouraging to see. And I would expect that after this
land and this auction is given the due process that it lacked before,
that that land is ultimately going to be protected and that we’re
going to find that the highest value for land like this is to be kept
in the most pristine condition possible.
AMY GOODMAN: So you affected two bids. One was the land you bought;
the other was the land you picked up the prices on. Is all of this now
the land that Salazar said cannot be drilled on? And what—I mean, you
didn’t pay for the land. What happens to the companies that did?
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: Well, I guess the BLM just can’t finalize their
checks from the companies that did pay for it. I know that all of the
parcels that I bid on or that I won were part of this order from
yesterday. So all the ones that I won, they can’t accept my payment
for. And then, as far as the ones that I drove up the prices, I don’t
know if all of those are included in this or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be charged?
TIM DeCHRISTOPHER: That’s still undecided. There was a statement from
the US attorney’s office here in Salt Lake yesterday that that’s still
something that they’re considering and that this doesn’t erase my
case. And that’s something that we [inaudible], as well, that this
protects the land, and that’s very encouraging to see, but it doesn’t
necessarily erase the possibility of prosecution against me. But the
thing that it does do is, I think it gives us a lot to stand on
legally, because this is now an official statement, as was the ruling
a couple weeks ago by a judge, that this was an illegal auction,
essentially, and it was inappropriate, and it was land that shouldn’t
have been put up for sale in the first place. So, you know, for me,
standing up against an illegal act, I think, gives us a lot to stand
on, if they do prosecute.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim DeChristopher, I want to thank you very much for
being with us, environmental activist, student at the University of
Utah. In December, he disrupted an auction of Utah’s pristine
wilderness to oil and gas companies simply by going in and bidding on