Peter Shelton

Guilty of What Exactly?

Posted in Gas Pains, Watch columns by pshelton on March 12, 2011

So, Tim DeChristopher was found guilty last week of disrupting an oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson made sure that the young activist was tried on the narrowest possible grounds – that he fraudulently deceived the Bureau of Land Management into thinking he was a legitimate bidder, and that he never intended to pay for the lease parcels he “won.”

Neither DeChristopher nor his lawyers were allowed to discuss why he did what he did. This may be defensible to some. To me it seems extreme, out of proportion with the crime, and the times.

What if the peaceful civil disobedience of a Rosa Parks or a Martin Luther King, Jr. had been prosecuted narrowly, in the courts and in the media? They too were protesting injustices they felt had become intolerable in mid-20th century America.

In early 21st century America Tim DeChristopher believes that he’s fighting for basic human rights. He entered the BLM auction that day in December 2008 believing that climate change was a pivotal, was the pivotal issue facing mankind. He believed that drilling for and burning fossil fuels was the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses, which are undeniably accumulating in the atmosphere. He feared for his future, for his children’s future.

He also believed that the Bush administration was rushing, in the days before its time was up, to lease as much land as possible to oil and gas companies, and damn the consequences, whether the surface was residential private land or public land on the borders of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

(DeChristopher was right on this point. Incoming Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar permanently removed the parcels in question from the auction block. The BLM had failed to follow rules of due diligence; the sale itself was illegal.)

So, why has President Obama’s justice department insisted on prosecuting DeChristopher’s act of political theater? I’d love to hear an answer. Nobody got hurt. Nobody lost a job. Nobody even lost any money. Except, perhaps, a few speculators who shouldn’t have been bidding on those parcels in the first place.

Surely Mr. Obama, with his avowed debt to MLK, and his professed belief in a new energy future, sees the risk in turning DeChristopher into an environmental martyr.

Surely the BLM is chagrined by the exposure of its incestuous, clubby relationship to the natural gas industry. I have been there, to a lease auction in Denver a few years ago. The BLM was auctioning off the mineral rights underneath my house in Colona. We would not have known about it except for the extraordinary efforts of members of Western Colorado Congress, who learned of the sale, studied property records and notified affected landowners.

It’s no wonder the minerals division of the BLM was caught off guard by DeChristopher’s play-acting. At the auction I attended, they were much too busy kowtowing to their buddies in the industry who were, after all, driving the process. The oil companies nominate the parcels for leasing; the Bureau just facilitates the wishes of what it refers to as its “clients.”

Everybody was playing the game; everybody was making out: the cowboy-hatted auctioneers, the Gucci-shoed bidders, their gullible government accomplices.

Shame on them as guardians of the public lands for going along with the Bush/Cheney ramrod. Shame on them for not recognizing DeChristopher’s hoax for what it was; they let the 27-year-old in a t-shirt with the shaved head and the backpack run up a tab of $1.8 million before asking him to step outside and have a chat. Shame on them for taking out their embarrassment on the man who exposed their lazy process.

DeChristopher had wanted to use what is called a necessity defense. In other words, his actions, while admittedly breaking the law, were undertaken to prevent a greater harm. A fire is threatening to burn out of control; it may be necessary to destroy other property to form a firebreak. DeChristopher sees his decision as creating a firebreak, however small, against global warming.

But that defense was not allowed. The jury reached its guilty verdict in a matter of hours. A law was broken; we are a nation of laws. Let’s don’t look at the big picture.

Now Judge Benson must hand down punishment. DeChristopher could get 10 years. The Salt Lake Tribune, the paper of record in arguably the most conservative state in the union, opined on Sunday for the judge to deliver the lightest sentence the law allows.

 

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One Response

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  1. mary ann dismant said, on March 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Peter,
    On the Tim DeChristopher issue: great reporting, thoughtful comments. difficult issue but highly important to us all. The comparison to the Martin L. King age was apt.


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