Bidder dupes Utah BLM auction for oil, gas leases
December 23, 2008
SALT LAKE CITY ” A college student who infiltrated a government auction for oil and gas parcels said Monday he didn’t plan to run up prices and disrupt the sale until an auction clerk asked him, “Are you here to bid?”
With that, Tim DeChristopher, 27, a University of Utah economics student and environmental activist, showed his driver’s license, picked up bidding paddle No. 70 and quietly seated himself in the bidding hall on Friday.
He snapped up 22,500 acres of parcels between Arches and Canyonlands national parks that he doesn’t plan to develop or even pay for. He also drove up prices on other bids by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Nobody else has infiltrated a government auction to cause so much turmoil, according to officials at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Investigators submitted reports Monday to federal prosecutors, based on DeChristopher’s own account of his auction play. No decision on charges against DeChristo pher was expected until after the holidays, and the case would go to a grand jury first, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
DeChristopher huddled Monday with Ron Yengich, a prominent Utah defense lawyer, and Patrick Shea, a lawyer who also was head of the Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration.
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Shea said the BLM didn’t require bidders last week to show proof of a bond or their ability to pay for leases.
That was a practice Shea said he followed as head of the bureau for two years ending in 1999.
“Somehow, the regulations changed, an indication of their rush” to sell oil and gas parcels before President George W. Bush leaves office next month, said Shea. “It was rush before the door slams behind them: ‘Let’s get as many leases out as possible.'”
BLM officials didn’t return calls seeking comment Monday.
The lawyers also discussed with DeChristopher the possibility of finding sympathetic and well-heeled donors to raise $1.7 million to pay for his leases, and whether that would keep him out of trouble.
DeChristopher said his bidding won moral support from his mother, a founder of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, but consternation from his father, a retired natural-gas engineer.
“He’s not especially pleased about the actions I took and the fact that I put myself at risk,” DeChristopher said.
Friday’s auction drew scathing criticism from actor Robert Redford and a lawsuit by environmental groups, who are challenging the sale of 80 of 131 offered parcels.
Stephen Bloch, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said a majority of the contested parcels were among the 116 sold Friday.
Many of the 13 parcels DeChristopher won were the subject of the lawsuit or protests filed by the National Park Service. In response to complaints from the Park Service and other groups, the BLM ultimately dropped more than half the 359,000 acres first proposed for auction, including drilling parcels that had been bunched up on the boundaries of Arches National Park.
Still, activists said Friday’s sales included parcels that threaten Utah’s wildlands or could spoil the view from some of the state’s spectacular national parks.
DeChristopher said he was willing to leave his fate in the hands of U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman for what he described as a simple act of civil disobedience he took spontaneously.
He had arrived outside the government office building only to join a demonstration against leasing wild areas of Utah, then stepped inside a lobby hoping to draw a complaint. Instead, he met a friendly BLM clerk who asked if he was a bidder.
A college senior, DeChristopher said his education in economics wasn’t even necessary, and that he didn’t have any bidding strategy. At one point, he bid on a dozen successive parcels near national parks, but he said he knew only that the parcels were located somewhere near Moab.
“It was just raise my arm as often as possible, bidder No. 70,” DeChristopher said Monday in an interview at a Salt Lake City restaurant. “I was trying to make it obvious I was there to disrupt the auction.”
It might have been his bidding style, or the fact DeChristopher was wearing a purple down jacket and carrying a rough leather saddlebag. But after grabbing 13 parcels and running up prices generally, other bidders complained to BLM officials, who pulled DeChristopher out for questioning.
DeChristopher said he readily acknowledged he never intended to pay for his parcels.
“One of the parcels I took was for $2.25 an acre,” he said. “That’s shocking – that we can sacrifice our public lands for as little as $2.25 an acre.