Judge rejects global warming trial in Utah auction case
November 16, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge said Monday he won’t allow global warming to be put on trial in the case of a college student charged with disrupting an auction of oil and gas drilling leases.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson denied a motion by lawyers for Tim DeChristopher, who wanted to mount a defense that he acted in the interest of the greater good by bidding up parcels near some of Utah’s national parks.
The University of Utah student won 13 leases at the Bureau of Land Management auction last December while acknowledging he had no intention or capacity to pay the $1.7 million for his winning bids. He also drove up prices by hundreds of thousands of dollars on parcels won by others.
DeChristopher was indicted in April on felony charges of interfering with a government auction and making false representations. He has said he was acting to curb climate change by preventing drilling, and that the auction was illegal from the start.
DeChristopher, an economics major, wanted to use what’s called a “necessity defense” by claiming he chose the lesser of two evils and acted to prevent imminent harm.
His lawyers wanted to call some of the nation’s pre-eminent climate scientists to testify about the potential dangers of global warming.
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Prosecutors objected to widening the scope of the trial into a publicized philosophical discussion over global warming and environmental damage. They said those points are irrelevant to the charges against DeChristopher.
In his ruling, Benson said legal papers filed on DeChristopher’s behalf didn’t show his actions would have prevented imminent harm.
“Unlike a person demolishing a home to create a firebreak, DeChristopher’s actions were more akin to placing a small pile of dirt in the fire’s path,” Benson wrote in his nine-page ruling.
He said DeChristopher could have filed formal protests over the leases, demonstrated outside the auction or gotten involved with one of several environmental groups that sued the federal government and eventually stopped the leases from moving forward.
“Obviously we’ll follow the court’s ruling but we disagree with it, and I do so respectfully,” DeChristopher’s attorney, Ronald Yengich, said Monday afternoon. He said DeChristopher’s legal team will need to analyze the decision to understand exactly what elements it precludes from their defense.
Brett Tolman, the U.S. attorney for Utah, praised Benson’s ruling.
“We agree with Judge Benson’s analysis that Mr. DeChristopher failed to establish any of the required elements of his proposed defense,” Tolman said in a written statement. “We now look forward to pressing on to trial and reaching a final resolution in this case.”
A trial date has not been set.
DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, although Tolman has said he is unlikely to get anything close to the maximum punishment.