Utah Climate Activist Found Guilty of Making False Bids on Energy Leases

Tim DeChristopher's sentence will be decided on June 23, but is unlikely to face the full potential 10-year sentence

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Tim DeChristopher speaks to supporters.
Tim DeChristopher addresses supporters in April 2009. Image courtesy of Peaceful Uprising.

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Editor’s Note: In advance of Tim DeChristopher’s trial, SolveClimate News conducted exclusive interviews with the environmental activist on his civil disobedience. The video series can be viewed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

An environmental activist was on Thursday found guilty on two felony charges after he disrupted a government auction of land for oil and gas exploration.

Tim DeChristopher’s sentence will be decided on June 23 but is unlikely to face the full potential 10-year sentence, the prosecutor said.

Outside the courthouse, DeChristopher told press and supporters: “We know now that I will have to go to prison. If we are to achieve our vision, many more will have to join me.”

Asked by one reporter whether he would do it again, he replied to cheers from the crowd: “I wouldn’t change a thing. It had the initial impact I hoped for, where attention was drawn to the auction and the auction was reversed but all this [support] is more than I could ever have asked for.”

The prosecutor, the U.S. attorney for Utah, Carlie Christensen, said it was extremely pleased with the jury’s verdict.

“DeChristopher had several reasonable and lawful alternatives to disrupting this auction.” She will now begin to prepare the pre-sentence report, but said she will not seek the maximum penalty.

DeChristopher, 29, had been charged with making a false statement, and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act. On December 19, 2008, he went into an oil and gas auction in Utah — the last before the end of George Bush’s term in office — where 130,000 acres of land near pristine areas of Utah such as Nine Mile Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument were due to be sold off.

DeChristopher signed up as Bidder 70 and bid on a number of parcels, driving up prices and buying $1.7 million of land before being taken into custody.

The conduct of the case, which began on Monday, has attracted controversy, with Judge Dee Benson criticized by some people for his decision to bar DeChristopher from using the “necessity defense.” This meant not only that DeChristopher was unable to argue that he acted in order to prevent greater harm to the environment, but also meant that all discussion of the political context for DeChristopher’s actions was barred.

“When he took the stand yesterday that opened it up a little in terms of being able to talk about his state of mind,” said law professor Rebecca Hall, who has been working with the defense team. “But from the start the judge has taken an incredibly narrow interpretation of the law. The government would have liked this case to go away, but as it has gone to court he had to be made an example of.”

The case has also attracted national attention in the U.S., and is being credited with reinvigorating the climate change movement.

“It’s re-energized and given a new direction to the movement,” says Ash Anderson, whose organization Peaceful Uprising has been running solidarity actions for DeChristopher throughout the trial. “It’s been inspiring.”

One Salt Lake man has already been so inspired that he lost his job.

Ryan Pleune, a school bus driver, was taking 50 children home from a theater performance of A Tale of Two Cities, and diverted the bus to show them the rallies outside the courtroom. “It started to occur to me that there is this kind of democracy in action going on in our city. It is national news,” Pleune told a local newspaper. “Why not share that with the kids rather than let them just read it in their text books and think it is in the past?”

Bill McKibben, the founder of the 350.org climate movement, told the Guardian: “If the federal government thinks this will deter protest of its policies, they are mistaken. There will be many more Tim’s; in fact we will be spurred to match his solitary bravery with bravery on a larger scale.”

Rainforest Action Network’s executive director, Rebecca Tarbotton, said: “If the government or the oil and gas industry think that today’s verdict has intimidated or silenced people of conscience, they can think again. We are emboldened and inspired by Tim’s actions and commitment to protect our health and our climate and we will follow in his lead.”

Support for DeChristopher was also expressed by Phil Radford, the head of Greenpeace USA, and by the Sierra Club.

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