Tim DeChristopher is an American climate activist and co-founder of the environmental group Peaceful Uprising. On December 19, 2008, he protested an oil and gas lease auction of 116 parcels of public land in Utah’s redrock country, conducted by the Bureau of Land Management. DeChristopher decided to participate in the auction, signing a Bidder Registration Form and placing bids to obtain 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) for $1.8 million. DeChristopher was removed from the auction by federal agents, taken into custody, and questioned. On July 26, 2011, Judge Dee Benson sentenced DeChristopher to two years in prison.
DeChristopher was indicted on April 1, 2009 in a two-count felony indictment for violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements. He pleaded “not guilty” on both charges, and faced up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
In November 2009 DeChristopher’s defense team claimed a necessity defense, which required proof that DeChristopher was faced with choosing between two evils and that his actions resulted in the lesser of the two to avoid imminent harm where no legal alternative was available. Federal prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Dee Benson prohibited the defense, precluding DeChristopher from presenting evidence that might have supported his argument for necessity defense. DeChristopher and his attorneys were also forbidden to inform the jury that the lease auction was deemed unlawful, that DeChristopher had raised sufficient funds for an initial payment to the BLM (which the BLM refused to accept), or that DeChristopher’s motives were grounded in moral convictions related to climate change.
DeChristopher’s necessity defense claim was condemned by prosecutor John Huber, “It becomes clear that the defendant’s hopes are to have a prominent venue for his global-warming show — a platform from which he could educate the masses.” Huber also asserted that DeChristopher overlooked legal methods of protest. In a court address, DeChristopher responded to Huber’s assertion:
“The government has made the claim that there were legal alternatives to standing in the way of this auction. Particularly, I could have filed a written protest against certain parcels. The government does not mention, however, that two months prior to this auction, in October 2008, a Congressional report was released that looked into those protests. The report, by the House committee on public lands, stated that it had become common practice for the BLM to take volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process those permits. The oil industry was paying people specifically to volunteer for the industry that was supposed to be regulating it, and it was to those industry staff that I would have been appealing.”
DeChristopher’s defense claimed a selective prosecution defense in March 2010. Defense attorney Ron Yengich suspected “political machinations” behind DeChristopher’s indictment. DeChristopher learned about his indictment from an Associated Press reporter informed by an oil and gas lobbyist in Washington D.C. Yengich also requested information from federal prosecutors regarding previous cases where individuals and energy companies that reneged on bids for public land without prosecution. Judge Benson denied that request, citing “no support for further discovery.”
Benson adamantly asserted that DeChristopher’s actions were largely unsuccessful and undeserving of comparisons to historical acts of civil disobedience by figures such as Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau. However, DeChristopher’s actions garnered national attention for an illegal government auction of public land leases during the final days of the Bush administration. On January 17, 2009, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina temporarily halted the sale of 77 parcels, citing BLM violations of environmental laws protecting air quality and historic preservation. In February 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar shelved 77 disputed lease parcels – some of which had been won by DeChristopher at auction — and criticized Bush administrators for conducting a “rush review” of the contested lands.
On July 26, 2011, Judge Benson sentenced DeChristopher to two years in prison, imposed a $10,000 fine, and ordered him into immediate custody.
The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a memorandum addressing DeChristopher’s case that stated, “To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior.” DeChristopher responded to this statement during his court address:
“The certainty of this statement not only ignores the history of political prisoners, it ignores the severity of the present situation. Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change. They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line. And they know we are running out of time to turn things around. The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back. The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people. The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel. The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today.
“And neither will I. I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future. Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience. Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority. You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.”