Andreas Späth

Much law, no justice

2011-08-03 07:40

When 27-year-old economics student Tim DeChristopher walked into a 2008 auction at which the outgoing US government of George W Bush was planning to sell-off oil and gas drilling rights for 130 000 acres of near pristine public land in southern Utah at rock-bottom prices, his intention was to interrupt proceedings enough to stop the sale from taking place.

He didn’t know how he was going to accomplish that, but he was committed to doing whatever it took to keep the oil and gas in the ground rather than have it contribute to climate change.

What happened next turned DeChristopher into a folk hero and a criminal.

Somewhat unexpectedly an official asked him if he would like to bid, handing him a paddle numbered "70". DeChristopher started entering bogus bids on plots of land with money he didn’t have, driving up prices and eventually “buying” drilling rights to 14 parcels amounting to 22 500 acres and $1.79m. By the time officials became suspicious and arrested him, he’d managed to monkey-wrench the entire event and the auction was stopped.

DeChristopher had accomplished his mission, but even though Barack Obama’s administration subsequently declared most of the results of the land auction invalid, he had still acted illegally. Within a few days, he and his supporters managed to raise enough money to cover the $45 000 down-payment for the land, but the government was not prepared to accept it.

Ordinary citizens aren’t permitted to bid in these auctions almost by definition, because successful bidders are required to “develop” the land - meaning drill for oil and gas - within a given period of time, and of course DeChristopher had no intention of ever doing that.

When his matter finally came up for trial in March this year, it was treated as a run-of-the-mill criminal case. The state prosecution, vocally supported by the oil and gas industry, argued for the maximum permissible sentence in order to discourage similar actions by others. DeChristopher was denied the opportunity to explain the motivation for his actions to the jury and they never got to hear the fact that he’d believed himself to be engaged in a non-violent act of civil disobedience to demonstrate against his government’s unsustainable and immoral energy and climate change policies.

The judge also ruled out the so-called “necessity” defence, which would have allowed DeChristopher to argue that his actions, although self-admittedly illegal, were necessary to prevent even greater environmental injustice and damage. After a four-day trial, he was found guilty of two felony charges: violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and making false statements.

At his sentencing hearing in Salt Lake City last week, an unrepentant DeChristopher finally got the chance to put his side of things on the official record. His statement to the court is rather lengthy, but well worth the read. Reaffirming his belief in the validity of civil disobedience he pointed out that
    “disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law. [...] If the government is going to refuse to step up to [the] responsibility to defend a liveable future [by mitigating against the impacts of catastrophic climate change], I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens. My future, and the future of everyone I care about, is being traded for short term profits.”

After listening to his stirring plea, US District Court Judge Dee Benson sentenced DeChristopher to two years in prison plus three years of supervised release and a $10 000 fine. He was taken into custody immediately without the customary period to get his affairs in order.

On the morning before he walked into that fateful land auction in 2008, DeChristopher wrote an economics exam at the University of Utah. One of the questions actually referred to the event he was about to disrupt, asking whether the final lease price raised at the auction would reflect the true value of the land if only bidders from the petroleum industry were allowed to participate. Surely that’s the question that gets to the heart of the moral issue involved in DeChristopher’s case, rather than any legalistic arguments made during his trial: how much are we willing to sell our land and our environment for, and to whose benefit and profit?

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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